Robotic Milker Adds Flexibility to Dairy Farm Life

By Jody Padgham, MOSES

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A typical dairyperson’s life revolves around a regular twice-a-day commitment to milking cows. Not so anymore for Pete Ruegemer of Villard in central Minnesota. With the purchase of two DeLaval robotic milking systems in the spring of 2011, Pete, his wife Anita, and their children, Sara and Jeremy, no longer have regular milking hours for their 150 cows. “The robotic systems have really freed things up time-wise,” Pete said. “Our days are a lot more flexible.” That means that when the Ruegemers received the Horizon Organic Producer Education (HOPE) Award last year, they could leave the farm to receive the award at the Farm Aid concert in Hershey, Penn. in September.

“The robotic system has allowed us to double cow numbers without adding a lot more work,” Pete said. He recommended the systems for anyone that is interested in increasing their herd size.

The Ruegemers farm on 330 acres they purchased across from Pete’s home farm in 1982. They also rent another 160 acres plus some permanent pasture. The farm is focused on the dairy operation, with 140 acres of pasture and home-grown feed crops raised on the 400+ tillable acres. They’ve been shipping organic milk since 2006.

Although all of the seven Ruegemer children help on the farm, Sara and Jeremy, now in their mid-twenties, decided they wanted to join the farm operation. The need to increase cow numbers to support the new farm partners led to discussions of alternatives to the 80-cow tie stall set up they were using. A friend was using a robot, and recommended that option. After much discussion, research and exploration of options, the family decided to go with two DeLaval robotic milking systems, purchased by Sara and Jeremy. “We had the first DeLaval robot on an organic farm,” Pete said, “and the first in central Minnesota. The company has been great to work with and gave the kids a good deal.”

Pete explained that it took about a year for all of the kinks to work out of the robotic systems, but he is now very pleased with the way things are working. An 88 x 188 foot free-stall barn is a key element. The free-stall houses the cows, the two robots, holding areas, an office and a milk house. The cows are allowed free access to the outdoors and pasture year-round, unless the Minnesota weather dictates closing them in the barn. Roll-down sides allow free flow of air, with fans to help with circulation on really hot days.

The robots run “24/7,” Pete explained, and the cows themselves choose when they want to get milked. A computer system identifies each cow as she comes through a sorting “smart gate,” and decides if it is appropriate for her to go into the robot. “The robot is set to allow fresh cows to get milked as often as every six hours,” Pete noted. “And, we have some that choose to be milked that often.” Members of the farmer team check the robots a couple of times a day, where they get a listing of number of hours since each cow has been milked, showing the longest time first. If any cow hasn’t visited the robots within 12 hours, she will be rounded up and put through the system. “If a cow doesn’t come in, it may mean she has a sore foot or health issues, which, though rare, does happen. The computer helps us keep on top of things.” The farmers also walk amongst the cows a few times a day to monitor them.

Sierra Exif JPEGAfter the first nine or ten months of adjustment, Pete said that milk quality and quantity are more or less the same as in the old tie-stall system. Their yield is 55-60 pounds of milk per cow, which Pete is OK with, but would like to increase. “We had some trouble with PI at first, mainly due to some early equipment misfunction and adjustments needed,” Pete explained. “But, milk quality is pretty steady now.” The Ruegemers ship milk to Horizon Organic, which has been very supportive through the robotic transition.

Being the first organic system for DeLaval meant the company representatives were learning, too, as they were setting up. Lower average yield than many large operations that push cows meant the refrigeration in the tanks needed to be set differently; at first there were struggles with milk freezing. But, the systems are working fine now. Pete’s son is learning how to do routine maintenance, and has had good luck troubleshooting problems over the phone with the local DeLaval tech person. With the systems running 24 hours every day, parts need to be replaced more frequently than in a traditional system. There’s only been one occasion when both robots were not working, and that was for just a few hours. Pete explained that “the cows will back up a bit if one robot goes down, but they can catch up pretty quickly.”

Heifers coming into the system are first brought into a holding pen in the free-stall for a few days, so they can get used to the smells in the barn. They are isolated, as Pete has noticed that the older cows “like to push the heifers around a bit.” A new heifer will be walked around the barn four times, in and out of the robot holding areas and gates. Pete said that it takes most animals a week to 10 days to get comfortable with the system. Some cows are more nervous than others, and will kick or resist the milker arm, but this will be seen in any milking set up. These animals will be managed for a period of time when they come into the milking system to help them adapt. Ruegemers have only had one cow in the 2 ½ years not adapt to the system, she ended up dying of an unrelated injury. Pete feels the cows actually seem more comfortable coming into the robot system than they did coming into the tie-stall.

Cows receive 1/2 to 2-1/2 pounds of protein on a feed table in the milking system–generally ground flax and soymeal. They’ll also get 3-1/2 to 5 pounds of a grain—such as shell corn, barley, peas–whatever is available from the farm. The grain draws the cows in, with quantities auto-customized for each individual by the computerized system. The feeding system is what led the Ruegemers to the DeLaval system. Another system they were considering required pelletized feed, which they’d have to purchase off-farm at a high cost for organic. TMR is fed in the feed alley free choice, which the cows can get to after they go through the robotic milker. Pete noted that the cows tend to choose to be milked most often in the morning and late afternoon—tied to when there is activity in the barn that gets them moving, such as cleaning and feeding.

One caution Pete had for other farmers using robotic systems or not, is to watch for stray voltage, which he’s seen significantly affect their cows. Luckily, a fellow handy at helping diagnose stray voltage has helped solve several issues not caused by the robot, but affecting it. At one point the cows wouldn’t go into the robots, but after a stray voltage issue related to a bad switch was solved, they were soon back in service. Pete pointed out that you can have a bad breaker or compressor with no other negative symptoms that will be creating voltage problems. The only way you know is by observing animal problems and testing for stray voltage.

Pete didn’t have figures about how much the system cost. He did note that the operational costs for energy and water for cleaning (the units self-clean twice per day) are about the same as what a “high-end automatic parlor” would see. The robots must be kept above freezing, and the Ruegemers are able to keep them warm with the heat generated from the other equipment in the area, saving some expense there. Coming from the minimal costs of a tie-stall, investment obviously went up for the robotic system.

Though there were significant set-up costs, overall Pete feels that it has been a very worthwhile change. He likes that the cows get to choose when they get milked—and when they get to move around.

“We went from 80 cows to 150 without adding a lot of labor,” he added. This has freed up a lot of time available for other things, especially more family time–a priority for the Ruegemers. “There’s always more to get done on the farm, though,” Pete said. “I haven’t run out of things to spend time on.” In fact, he mentioned that now that he doesn’t have the regular hours milking used to dictate, he’ll often find himself in the barn later than before, puttering on one thing or another. “We’re not ‘done,’ like we used to be,” he chuckled.

Jody Padgham is the editor of the Organic Broadcaster. Photos contributed by the Ruegemer family.

September/October 2013

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