by Elizabeth A. Tomlin
Despite bitterly frigid weather, more than 60 folks from at least five northeastern states — and one farmer from Texas — attended a mid-January Lely robotic dairy meeting and toured three robotic dairy farms in Western NY.
“We see robotic milking increasing as dairymen are concerned about the availability and cost of labor, increasing efficiency, increased milk production and cow comfort,” commented Jim Elliott, Regional Sales Specialist/ Lely North America.
Hemdale Farms located in Seneca Castle, NY, was one of the dairies toured during the two-day event.
Hemdale Farms currently milks approximately 1,300 cows.
Dale Hemminger, Hemdale Farms president and owner says about 10 years ago he could see there were problems developing with immigrants that would definitely impact the dairy industry.
“I had been struggling with this whole immigration thing,” said Hemminger. “I had been using Mexicans since ‘87.”
Hemminger brought in four trial robots in 2007.
Pleased with the increase in production, less stress and human intervention and reliability of the robots, Hemminger, along with his son Clayton and herd manager Pete Maslyn, decided to bring in more robots.
“We fired up four more in the summer of ‘09 and then four more in the fall of ‘09. Those 12 turned in very high production rates.”
Production numbers per cow soon averaged 90 pounds per day with the robotics and they have continued to buy more robots.
Hemminger says he and his family are extremely happy with the Lely robotic milkers and have recently brought in two more, increasing his current number to 21 robots.
“We’re at 50–52 cows per robot,” said Hemminger. Special groups of cows may have a slightly higher rate of 58-60 per robot.
“There’s a sweet spot there,” said Hemminger.
John Wolf of Maple Lawn Farms, Lyons, NY, manages the family dairy with his wife, brother, father and mother.
Wolf says the dairy herd, which he reports is about 40 percent 2-year-olds, has not only shown an increase in productivity, but has also shown an increase in lying time and obvious increase in comfort, which he credits to the low stress environment and free cow traffic through the robotic milkers.
“The robots never have a bad day and there are no human emotions to cause stress in the cows.”
The cows decide when to eat, when to be milked and when to lay down. There is no standing time in a holding pen waiting to be milked, as they go when they feel ready; not when someone decides it is time to milk them. Left to their own schedule, the cows are being milked about three times daily.
Maple Lawn, milking about 500 cows, has seen savings on production costs and especially labor costs. It is also reported that pregnancy rates have been higher with less hormonal shots administered, apparently due to low stress and increased cow comfort.
“We focus on cow comfort here,” confirms John’s mother, Nancy.
Post Farms in Oakfield, NY, is milking nearly 500. They also opened their doors to farm tour attendees, where not only robotic milkers were viewed, but also Juno, a robot that pushes up feed, which saves time and labor for dairy farmers.
“Labor was one of the main factors for going with robotics,” said Jeff Post, who farms with his dad and uncle, John and Dan. The farm, which has been in the family for generations, had considered closing their doors at one time. They now run with eight robots.
Kathy Davis, of Ayers Farm, Northeast Ohio, car-pooled to the event with eight other farmers interested in exploring Lely milking robotics. Ayres Farm is currently milking nearly 700.
“Our issues are similar to most others,” said Davis. “Our parlor won’t last forever, so we are exploring the various options. Best use of technology, lifestyle, labor, cow comfort, etc.”
Davis says as with any new method, the learning curve must be considered.
“A lot is in the mindset. Do you see a challenge or an opportunity? One of the reasons for participating in tours such as this is to see as much as you can, learn as much as you can, so that when you implement it on your own farm there are less surprises.”
Davis says there are definitely distinct advantages with the robotic data collection on each individual cow.
Elliott says the Lely representatives were pleased with the turnout for the Northeast event.
“We’re very happy with turn out!” remarked Elliott. “We would like to thank the three farms we visited and Fingerlakes Dairy Services.”
Fingerlakes Dairy Service, Whitney Davis, VP, Dairy Equipment Sales Manager, was key in coordinating the farm tours, which are all affiliated with the Fingerlakes’ dairy business.
“I think it was fantastic — and I think it is a good indicator of interest in robotic milking,” remarked Whitney. “One of the major concerns in the dairy industry today is the labor issue and it’s going to get tougher and tougher.”
Currently there are approximately 300 robots in New York State, a number that is growing rapidly.
“Last year we sold more robots than we ever have, well over 50, even though milk prices were lower.”
Whitney said the rate of robotics adoption and the level of interest is accelerating due to farmers’ need to be more efficient and competitive — and to help alleviate labor concerns.
“There is increased efficiency through a focus on management. They require a different management style, it really pays to take your time to do your homework.”