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.

Heather was familiar with computers, so she prepared for the new system by dedicating much of her time to loading the information necessary for electronic tracking. She entered the cow’s birthdate, calving date, lactation number, responder number, breeding date and reproductive status. The responder number entered into the computer matches a collar made for each cow. The scanning system above the milking machine keeps track of which cow is entering the milking station.

Each time a cow enters the station, feed pellets drop. The pellets act as a reward and motivator to bring the cows back. If a cow returns to the milker too soon, the feed pellets disappear, the gate opens and the cow is released from the station. Once the cow is accepted into the milking station, information is gathered on the time since last milking, how much the cow milks and how long it takes to milk.

It was hard at first for Mike to embrace technology. He had never turned on a computer or used a smartphone, and he had to tackle both technology tools before the system came to the operation. Mike had a rough start.

“The first day I had this phone, I wanted to break it,” he says. “Then after a couple of days, I thought, this is pretty easy. All of the electronic stuff is pretty user friendly.”

With all of the preparation work done, the entire system went online May 28. Heather remembers because it was the first day the boys had off for summer, and they were excited to help.

“They came home from school and put their boots on right away,” she says. “They worked their tails off.”

The startup for robotic milking involves training for both the cow and the producer and is designed in a series of stages. The family knew it would take at least four weeks to get through the startup process, but for them, four weeks spread into 12.

For the first five to seven days, the cows were familiarized with the machines. They weren’t robotically milked, but walked through the area three times a day with everything in motion and making noise.

The first cow came through the test run with a real bang, literally. The sound and movement of the milking machine startled the cow and she swung about, breaking a window to the new office and denting the door to the electronics area.

“Every cow, when the arm came under them for the first time, they kicked the heck out of the machines,” Mike says. “It’s amazing the beating these things took.”

In the next phase, the cows were fetched off a last milking interval to the robot. The time for that varies from 8–12 hours. After a week or so of that schedule, the cows are allowed to make the decision to come to the milker. If she didn’t come and get milked, Mike had to find her and bring her in. As the Haineses recall, implementing the new system was harder on them than the cows.

During the first month and a half, the couple did not leave the barn unattended. Heather and Mike worked the operation from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. Then Mike’s twin brother, Mark, would take the 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift. A shift included watching the video monitors and following up on computer alerts. The most likely source of a computer alert was if a cow didn’t come in for milking. Mike says he never thought he would reach the point where everything worked smoothly.

“I have to be honest, it was awful. It really was,” he says. “There were points where I wanted to quit. We were just so doggone tired. About a month and a half into it, I was just about ready to put them back into the parlor. Honestly, it was terrible.“

The family worked, slept and ate in the milking area. Mark had his own farm to tend to, but he took time out to help Mike and Heather.

“One day, we couldn’t get the door to the office opened,” Mike says. “We thought the dog was lying against it. We looked in and we saw my brother Mark curled up and asleep with his head on his jacket on the floor.”

The Haineses looked to their setup consultant for support. 

“I told them that they are not the only ones,” says Paul Berdell with Robotic Milking Solutions. “Some people think it’s just them. It makes everyone feel better if they know that they are not in it alone. I let them know that other owners have gone through it.”

Berdell consulted with the family through the entire startup period and he says that he spent 170 hours working with and coaching the family.
Berdell says the Haines’ startup time was a little longer than usual, but that they adapted themselves to the system quickly. Other dairymen, he says, have a harder time breaking with tradition.

“Some farmers have been dairying a certain way for so many years,” Berdell says.  “They are very stringent about what they do. Transitioning to not having cows milk for 16 hours is hard for many to do. They have habits, and those habits are hard to break, and people struggle with losing the person-to-cow contact.”

The Haineses worked hard to train the cows to come into the milking station.

“We had one cow that still had to see Mike before she would walk into the pen,” Heather says. “Some of the cows are like that. They remember that when they see you it’s time to milk.”
The Haineses also noticed a pecking order of sorts in the freestall barn.

“It’s like watching kids at the drinking fountain at school,” Mike says.  “The bullies are always going to butt their way in, and then everyone else stands there and waits their turn.”

Once the family got through the startup process, they watched the cows establish a routine. The cows tend to slow down their milking around 3 or 4 a.m. and sleep until about 7 a.m. A positive change the Haineses discovered was the amount of milk cows were giving. When they started with the machines, they had 14 or 15 cows milking 100 pounds per day; four months later, Mike doubled that with 30 cows milking 100 pounds per day. 

Bontrager has been the Haines’ field representative for three years. He says Mike changed after the robotics machines were installed.

“Before the machines went in, he was dragging,” Bontrager says. “He was hardly getting any sleep. He was always tired when I saw him. Today, he is a lot more relaxed, and he talks more now.”

Mike agrees with Bontrager. He says that before robotic milking, he found it hard to relax because he always felt like he had to get chores done at a certain time.

“Before, if we were off by an hour, it would screw up the whole day. It was terrible,” Mike says. “Now, we don’t even feed the cows at a precise time. If I need to leave early, I can mix feed three or four hours early and fill up the bunks and leave.“

The new system at the dairy is also making an impact on their boys.

“Mike is showing them you don’t have to stand in the parlor three hours in the morning and three hours at night,” Heather says. “I think dairying is much more appealing to them because they know they can do their work and still have the option to leave if they want to.”

The robotics system doesn’t mean the Haineses are removed from the dairy. Mike says that now he works more efficiently and has more time to manage their operation.

“It gives you more time to do the things you didn’t have time to do before,” he says. “I’m managing things better now and I’ve made it to just about every one of the boys’ football games this year. It’s fun being able to leave, and I know that if there’s a problem, the system will call my cell phone.”

It was a tough road for the Haineses, but they accomplished the two things they set out to do. They established a milking routine that works for the cows and is good for the family, and Mike gets time to see his sons.

“Getting to see the boys’ activities is so important to Mike, Heather and the kids,” Bontrager says. “That alone you will never put a price on 10 years down the road.”