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The Milk House

Robots on a grazing dairy give Michigan couple ‘freedom’ PDF Print E-mail
Features - Producers
Written by PD Editor Emily Caldwell   
Tuesday, 07 February 2012 13:11

Editor’s note: The following information was provided by Howard and Mary Jo Straub during their presentation, “Grazing and robots: Do they mix?” at the North-Central Ohio Grazing Conference Jan. 26-27, 2012 in Dalton, Ohio.

Howard and Mary Jo Straub of Saint Johns, Michigan, began dairying in 1972 with 26 cows. As they grew their family and the herd over the years, they discovered that grazing was the management style that worked best for them.

In 2000, the couple, along with daughter Terri Hawbaker, converted their then double-four herringbone parlor to a double-11 swing parlor to accommodate the now-rotational grazing herd of 100.

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As Hawbaker and her husband began dairying on their own farm, the Straubs (now in their 60s) decided to look into a robotic milker. They chose a Lely A3 Astronaut robot and chose to name it “Freedom,” which represents freedom for the cows and freedom for themselves, Howard says.

In January 2010, the Straubs began the process of training the herd for the robot and training the robot for their herd. Beginning with 45 of the herd’s 60 cows, the Straubs guided the robot as it learned the teat and udder placement on the cows.

“You have to be with the robot all 24 hours for about three days,” Howard says. “We took 12-hour shifts.”

After three weeks, 80 percent of the herd was voluntarily using the robot. One of the challenges the Straubs had from the beginning was getting the cows to return to the robot from the pasture, particularly during late spring when the paddocks were lush.

One solution the couple found was to only provide water in the barn, rather than in the pasture, so that the cows would have to return to the barn to drink. They also installed one-way gates so that once a cow entered the barn to drink, she wouldn’t be able to return to the pasture until she had been milked by the robot.

As the Straubs began feeling more comfortable with “Freedom,” they also began to freshen more cows, thereby increasing cow numbers. Although they were advised to have one robot for every 60 cows, the Straubs saw their herd size reach to 90.

They watched their number of milkings per cow per day drop to about 1.7 during April 2011, when it should have been at least two times a day.

To adjust for this, the couple divided the herd into two groups and switched the groups every six hours. Every day, they brought the Group 1 cows up to the robot at 6 a.m., switched those with the Group 2 at noon, switched back to Group 1 at 6 p.m. and then switched back to Group 2 at midnight.

“As I’d be driving back the lane in the dark to get the cows, I’d think to myself, ‘At least I don’t have to milk them,’” Mary Jo says.

The farthest distance the herd had to travel on the farm was three-quarters of a mile, Howard says.

While the Straubs didn’t mind the system of switching groups, they would prefer for the cows to have free-choice feed, water and milking schedule. They recently installed a second robot, which will allow them to increase the milking herd to 120 on 128 acres of pasture.

The cows will be able to be milked whenever they want, and the couple will only have to go out to the pasture to fetch a cow who is milking once a day or less. Cows can be milked up to four times per day.

“And some do,” Howard says. “We’ve discovered that early-lactation cows will try to be milked four to five times a day, and late-lactation cows will get lazy and only want to be milked once a day. If they’re within 30 days of drying off, we let them go only once a day.”

If the Straubs could do it over again, they would have started with two robots from the get-go. They also would have put heat in the floor of the robot room, as they have experienced challenges with frozen equipment during harsh Michigan winter conditions.

They advise fellow graziers to install alley scrapers in the barn or to put a pit underneath the barn. They also advise seasonal producers to consider transitioning back to year-round if purchasing a robot.

“You’ll want to keep the robot busy all year,” Howard says. “Plus, what’s the biggest reason for going seasonal? You don’t have to milk cows for a couple months. Well, I haven’t milked cows for a couple years.”

Along with the ease of labor, the Straubs discussed other benefits to their robot, including:

• Recordkeeping – The robot records milk weights, udder health, milk temperature and feed intake. The Straubs are able to access these records on their computer and, using Lely’s farm management system, are even able to benchmark these records against other producers in their area or other graziers using the company’s robots.

These records are backed up automatically, ensuring that even when a power outage occurs, the robot will operate the same on a generator or when the power returns.

• Wise investment – Howard says the value of a robot doesn’t depreciate the way other milking equipment does. He estimates producers can get about 60 percent of their money back when selling a robot, whereas with typical parlor equipment, it would be closer to 10 percent or less. Another advantage is that producers don’t have to build as big of a barn for robots as they would for a parlor.

Although the robot is running 24 hours a day, Mary Jo says the electric bill is almost exactly the same as it would have been for their double-11 swing parlor.

As the couple’s only debt, the loan on the robot will be paid within the next six years. But that doesn’t mean they’re done making improvements.

The Straubs plan to someday install a “Grazeway,” an addition to the robot designed specifically for graziers (and conventional producers who incorporate use of pastures). The Grazeway allows a cow to be turned out to pasture or to be kept separate in the barn if she needs to be bred or some other individualized attention.

To perform such management tasks, the Straubs rely on a full-time farm manager. If something goes wrong on the robot, it’s programmed to notify first the farm manager, then Howard, then Mary Jo.

While they’re still involved with decisions and any problems that may arise, the Straubs have plenty of spare time to spend with their 21 grandchildren. So for them, it’s robots or nothing.

“If I had to go back to milking cows, I’d probably quit dairying,” Howard says. “There’s no going back.”  PD

Graziers discuss strategies, opportunities at annual conference
The 2012 North Central Ohio Dairy Grazing Conference was held Jan. 26-27 at the Buckeye Event Center in Dalton, Ohio. This year marked the 11th year of the conference, which attracts graziers from Ohio, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Indiana.

The conference is organized by the North Central Ohio Dairy Grazing Council, which also hosts field days, pasture walks and workshops throughout the year.

In addition to Michigan graziers Howard and Mary Jo Straub who discussed their robotic milker, the two-day conference featured speakers such as University of Missouri’s Tony Rickard and Cornell University’s Jason Karszes. Topics included financial management, maintaining dairy equipment and bringing in a new generation.

On Friday, Jan. 27, Rickard discussed how the University of Missouri evolved their grazing model over the years, a process that included traveling to New Zealand to learn how the Kiwis did it. As New Zealanders began to arrive in the U.S. to give grazing in Missouri a try, extension staff members were able to return the favor of an education.

Specifically, University of Missouri staff taught the Kiwis about which forages grew well in the area and how to prepare for extreme weather conditions.

In fact, the recent 2011 Missouri Dairy Grazing Conference was originally scheduled to be held in Joplin but was moved to Springfield after a devastating tornado hit the area just two months before the conference. Another thing the New Zealand natives had to learn was fly control, something that wasn’t an issue in their home country.

Karszes stressed to graziers the importance of recordkeeping. Not only is it necessary for income tax and lending purposes, he said, but it’s also valuable for goal setting and decision making. Karszes said the key for recordkeeping is “TADA:” keep records Timely, Accurate, Detailed and Available.

The conference concluded with a panel discussion on managing farm financials.

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Emily Caldwell
Web Editor
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