He’s young, but third generation dairy farmer Brett Keller has seen a lot of changes at his family’s Holly Rock Farm in Stuyvesant, NY. He appreciates the farm’s history in relation to the modernization that has taken place over the years.

The Kellers’ start in dairy farming was in Easton, CT, where the family milked 40 cows. “They sold that farm and bought the farm in New York in 1985,” said Brett. “They also bought another herd of 125 cows.”

While the 125 purchased cows were familiar with moving to a parlor for milking, the Kellers’ 40 cows were accustomed to a tie-stall barn and had to adjust to different housing and a new milking routine.

In 1990, the family added a new heifer barn; in 1998, the family converted the milking parlor from a double-8 to a double-14. In 2000, the old free-stall barn was replaced with a new 252-cow barn. The Kellers were now milking around 240 cows.

About two years ago, the Holly Rock herd adjusted to another major change when the Kellers retrofitted the barn to accommodate four robotic milking stations. Although adding robotic milking is a significant investment, the farm’s outdated parlor and the ongoing struggle to find reliable employees helped the family make the decision.

Brett discussed some of the factors behind the choice to add a robotic system. “We figured out what it would cost us,” he said. “If we had [to pay] only one outside employee, the savings would make half the payments on the robots each year. Then if we could gain a little more milk on top of that, the robots would more than pay for themselves.”

Prior to selecting a robotic system, the family spent about five years researching the technology, looking at several robotic set-ups in various areas of the U.S. and talking with dealers at the New York Farm Show. Brett said he and his family understood there would be some initial challenges with the system, but they were prepared to adapt.

The Kellers started moving cows through the robot about a week before they started to milk them robotically. Brett recalled the dealer telling them it was the easiest herd he had helped transition to robotic milking because the family had already been moving cows through the robots to familiarize them with the system. After about two weeks of fetching cows for the robots, cows started entering the system on their own.

But it wasn’t all smooth sailing. Brett said there were too many cows in the herd for the robot capacity. “We started with 240 and should have started with around 200,” he said. “Now we have 220, and that’s a good number for us.”

Although the Kellers and their cows have adjusted to the robotic system, Brett said if he were to start over with a new barn, he’d design it with the robots in the center and a better ability to group cows.

“The robots have paid for themselves,” said Brett. “They’ve also eased some of the physical burden of dairy farming for the older family members who are still active on the farm.”

Rockin’ and rollin’ at Holly Rock

About two years ago, the Holly Rock herd adjusted to another major change when the Kellers retrofitted the barn to accommodate four robotic milking stations. Photo courtesy of Holly Rock Farm

One benefit of robotic milking is the herd manager’s ability to determine how many times a cow can visit the robot. Late lactation cows can visit the robot for 1.8 milkings in 24 hours, while fresh cow can visit as many as 5.5 times in 24 hours.

“The problem last year was getting enough visits from some cows,” said Brett. “We bumped our milk access table so cows up to 60 days fresh could visit 5.5 times a day, but they usually visit 3.5 to four times a day. After that it drops back based on how much milk they’re making. If they aren’t making 30 pounds per visit, they’re cut back.”

Robotic systems offer numerous options for monitoring individual cows’ habits and records. “When we put the robots in, we also got scales,” said Brett. “If cows start to lose weight, they’re flagged.”

The robotic system monitors daily somatic cell count and the Kellers are notified when a cow has mastitis – often before it’s visually detectable. “The computer might flag a cow, then when we check her, we don’t find anything in the quarter,” said Brett. “Having a record [of early mastitis] is helpful.”

In the free-stall barn, cows are kept comfortable on mattresses bedded with sawdust. Alley scrapers move manure underground, then manure is pumped to a lagoon for storage. The bedded pack in the heifer barn provides comfortable housing for both heifers and dry cows.

The cropping plan includes high moisture corn for silage and corn for grain. The family also maintains about 250 acres of alfalfa for haylage and 120 acres for dry hay made in large round bales, most of which is fed to heifers.

Calves are raised in hutches and receive pasteurized milk three times a day. Brett said the pasteurizer was a worthwhile investment that paid for itself in about three months. At weaning, calves are moved to group housing close to the hutches for easy monitoring as they adjust. After moving to the heifer barn, young replacements are grouped according to size.

A mating system is used to make breeding decisions, including whether the cow will be bred to dairy or beef. In general, top-producing cows are bred with sexed semen and low producers are bred to beef.

Brett said the robotic system somewhat limits the farm’s milking cow capacity so the Kellers strive to keep the herd number at around 220. “We’ve been doing a lot of selective culling,” he said. “If a cow doesn’t make a lot of milk, we don’t raise her calf.”

All the Kellers working on the farm are graduates of SUNY Cobleskill and share tasks to keep the farm running smoothly. Brett’s Uncle Paul handles the majority of herd work, including breeding. Brett’s father Kent feeds cows and heifers, while Brett cares for calves and monitors the robotic system. Brett and his father do most of the crop work.

Although Brett’s younger brother Calvin is still in college studying ag engineering, he helps on the farm when he can and plans to return to the farm after graduation. One hired person rounds out the workforce.

As with any farm, there’s always another project in the planning stages. After about 15 years of discussion, the Kellers built a new farm shop in 2020. “Most of us know how to fix things,” said Brett. “The new shop was much needed, and we enjoy having it.”

by Sally Colby