The decision to automate

Written by Christine Bush
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Dairy cows thrive on routine. They like to be milked at the same time, fed at the same time and don’t like when their daily routine is disrupted.

Dairy Farmers of America members Mike and Heather Haines followed that type of routine until they decided to make a drastic change at their dairy in Sigourney, Iowa. The Haineses switched from milking their herd of 180 Holsteins in a swing-10 parabone parlor to Lely’s Astronaut A4 I-flow robotic milking machines.

The decision to change didn’t come quickly. Mike and Heather had been dairying together for nine years when their DFA field representative, Merle Bontrager, told them about a nearby dairy using a robotic milking system.

“I always enjoyed milking, so I wanted to go see them,” Mike says. “Right away, I saw how nice the robotic system was for the cows. They could come and go as they want, and they didn’t have to stand in a holding area. I thought to myself, we’re going to get those.”

The possibility of switching to robotic milking came at a good time for the Haines family. Mike says they were at a point in their lives that something had to change, and the options they were considering included adding a significant number of cows and hiring help, or go robotic.

“Mike was doing it almost all by himself,” Heather says. “He was out there 16 to 18 hours a day. It was a lot of hours every day. We had to find something that worked better.”

The couple wanted change, not only for the dairy, but for their family as well. Mike and Heather have two boys, 15-year-old Denny and 13-year-old Dustin. Since Mike handled the operation by himself, the lack of time and flexibility meant he never made it to the boys’ school or sports activities.

The Haineses discussed options and crunched the numbers, and finally, after a year and a half of consideration, they chose to move to a robotic system.

“The biggest plus I was looking for was having a life,” Mike says. “I told Heather that if I can go to the boys’ activities, I don’t care how much the system costs.”

Mike ordered the Lely machines in November 2012, and the preparation work started soon after.

To begin with, Mike needed to decide how to trim his herd for the startup. He was milking 180 cows, and since he was installing three milking stations, it was recommended that he have 150 cows, or 50 per station. Mike decided he would send a few cows to a neighbor’s farm and dry off a few early.

Mike and Heather tackled a construction project to get the farm ready for the new system. They built a 270-foot-by-60-foot freestall barn to accommodate the robotic milking stations. The freestall barn allows the cows to eat and drink any time they want and to relax while they wait to milk. Mike liked that part of the setup because it cut down on how long the cows have to stand in line. When Mike did the milking, the cows could stand in line for up to three hours.

Attached to the new freestall barn is a robot room, which houses the electrical portion of the milkers and an office where the Haineses have a separate computer setup for monitoring information from the machines and the cows. The robotics system offers visual and electronic tracking of the cows’ milk production. It comes with surveillance cameras that allow Mike to see what is happening at each milking station and in the freestall barn. Mike can access those camera views from a computer or smartphone.