The Brake family won’t forget the night of Dec. 14, 2019. That’s when a fire destroyed the milking barn that had been home to the family’s registered Holsteins for more than 100 years. Matt Brake, son of Glenn and Karen Brake and the fourth generation on his family’s Oakleigh Farm in Mercersburg, PA, recounted the life-changing event.

“My sister is a minister and her church was having a Christmas party that night,” said Matt. “Dad and I started milking early that morning so he could milk earlier in the afternoon. Then they’d be finished with everything and could go to the Christmas party.”

On any other day at 4 p.m., the Oakleigh herd would be in the bank barn and holding area, waiting to be milked. But because milking started early, the cows were outside or in the loafing barn.

“The hired man saw smoke and grabbed my dad,” said Matt. “There was water right there and they put out the fire. But not long after that, Dad saw a haze over the bedded pack, climbed a ladder and saw a huge orange glow. They chased all the cows out to pasture. We didn’t lose any cows in the fire – it’s one of our God stories.”

Although the initial fire was small and appeared to be extinguished, it had already spread. With a strong wind carrying embers toward the parlor, shop and house, firefighters knew they couldn’t save the barn. However, they prevented the fire from spreading and saved the old parlor, silos and feed.

Neighbors in the Brakes’ community immediately rallied to help. A nearby dairy farmer had just sold his cows but still had his milking equipment. With the help of neighbors with trailers who showed up to help, the entire herd of 120 was moved to the neighbor’s farm in less than two hours.

“We moved the whole herd just three miles up the road,” Matt said. “Our compost bedded pack cows had to learn to be free-stall cows for seven months.”

The Brake family’s gut reaction after losing the entire barn was to rebuild. After some serious conversations about what to do, everyone agreed that cows should be on the farm again.

“We made a commitment and things started to fall into place,” said Matt. “We knew we were going to rebuild and keep milking in the parlor, even though it was more than 60 years old.”

One decision that had been made prior to the fire was to add a Lely Vector for automated feeding. “The automated mixing and precise ration made dollars and cents,” said Matt. “The payback period on that is great. Milking robots also have payback but it’s harder to put a value on them.”

Moving ahead with technology

Matt Brake, fourth generation dairy farmer, has found the robotic additions to the farm allow him to spend more time with the cows. Photo by Sally Colby

The concept of robotic milking wasn’t completely new – the Brakes had been looking at robotic systems prior to the fire and considering how they would retrofit the existing barn to accommodate robots.

“We had been looking at robotics for a while,” said Matt – his father was in favor of the idea. “As things started to shake out, it looked like robots would be a good possibility. It’s scary because it isn’t a cheap investment. But they were in our five-year plan, which turned into a two-year plan pretty quickly.”

Matt recalled that while his parents were in favor of adding a robotic milking system, they didn’t want it to be solely their decision because their adult children were becoming the primary farm operators. “Dad believed in the technology,” said Matt. “We’re all family labor and knew robotics would be a good opportunity to alleviate some of the stress. The farm is our passion but we all have other interests. The robotics gave us more flexibility where we weren’t tied to 2:30 milkings.”

The new barn was constructed on the same footprint as the old one, and like the old barn, features a composting bedded pack. The pack is maintained daily to keep cows clean and comfortable.

Since the new barn was a blank slate, robotics were a sensible solution for keeping cow traffic areas clean. Manure in the cow walkways is handled robotically by two Lely Discovery Collectors that move manure to a pit under the barn. The battery-operated compact units spray water ahead of collection to keep manure moist, and additional spray behind the units keeps walkways moist and ready for the next round of cleaning. The system saves time and labor and aids in keeping cows clean.

The Brakes brought their cows home in July 2020, milked in the old parlor for a month and started up the two Lely Astronaut A5 units on Aug. 31. There were several days of pushing cows through the robotic system, and only a few cows that needed extra guidance, but the herd was fully acclimated in about a week.

Although every farm’s experience with robotic milking is different, most agree that the time saved milking benefits the herd. “We’re treating cows differently than we were in the parlor,” said Matt. “We aren’t just looking at udders while we’re milking – we spend more time with our cows in the barn.”

He added that while it was easy to treat in the parlor because the cows were right there, the computer system sorts cows automatically to a holding pen for breeding or other treatments.

The cowherd was already accustomed to the composted bedded pack, and Matt said overall herd health has improved. The average SCC is low, and not as many cows require treatment. “The system catches health issues much sooner and looks at more than the parlor,” he said. “We rely on collars for activity reports such as rumination and eating, and we’re breeding more on natural heats.”

Glenn handles breeding for the 100% registered Holstein herd, which includes some cow families that are bred for high genetic potential. Matt referred to the rest of the herd as “good, solid cows” the family enjoys working with. Matt’s grandfather Ed is still an integral part of the farm, raising heifers on his nearby farm and pitching in where he’s needed.

“We’re cow people,” said Matt. “We’ve always appreciated good genetics in cows. We can trace generations back and we haven’t brought cows in for years.  The herd has good genetics – we have a family tree of cows that shows the building blocks of good cows and where their offspring have taken us. We focus on milk production and components, but we like to look at good cows.”

by Sally Colby