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Four robot milkers installed, with three owners

May 27, 2014 | 0 comments

Leibfried Dairy Farms, LLP, is a 210-cow dairy operation near Hazel Green in Grant County, WI, located in the far southwestern corner of the state, just a stone's throw from the Iowa and Illinois borders.

The family dairy is a bit unusual in several aspects. It is a three family limited liability partnership, is all organic, uses four Lely robots to carry out the milking process and the cows are rotationally grazed.

Aaron and Julie Leibfried, who own the farm on which the dairy operation is based, were married in 1996 and began farming on a 50/50 rental basis with 60 cows locally (both were raised in the area).

In 2000, the couple purchased their 160-acre dairy farm equipped with, in Aaron's words, "an old 40-cow stanchion set up" that they soon replaced with a flat barn milking parlor.

Dairy growth

A freestall barn was added in 2001, but the milking continued in the flat barn parlor. That same year, the Leibfrieds made the move to organic farming.

"The old well was contaminated with atrazine," Aaron said. "But, Julie's parents had been farming organic for some time, so it wasn't a major move for us. It was October 2004, after the three-year wait, when we were certified organic."

In 2007, another major move was carried out: the dairy herds of Aaron's father Steven and uncle Francis were combined with that of Aaron and Julie. "The farms are adjoining," Aaron explained. "It seemed logical, and we formed a limited partnership."

In February 2013, the three partners began discussions about the future of the dairy operation and came to the conclusion that they would pursue the idea of three-times a day milking.

Learning from a robot tour

Before going to 3x milking, they participated in a robot milking tour conducted by Argall Dairy Systems of Belleville and Platteville in March of last year. The tour visited the eight robot operation at Leedle Dairy in Lake Geneva and of Bob Blumer, a one robot dairy in Monroe.

"This got us interested and excited about robots," Aaron explained. "We hemmed and hawed from March until the week of Thanksgiving last year when we made the decision to go with Lely robots — the company has a Platteville office and a serviceman living near us."

March 17, the first milking

The robot equipment arrived on the farm January 20 and the first milking was March 17, just a bit over two months ago, he said.

What about getting the cows to use the robots?

"We were pleasantly surprised in how well the cows adapted to the robots," Aaron said. "We expected a lot worse. The Lely people gave us a lot of help."

Organic and rotational grazing

Leibfried pointed out that they are pasturing their milk cows, something that most people with robots probably don't do. "It's something we have to do to maintain our organic status," he explained.

They use a 28-paddock, rotational grazing system by which the cattle flow is directed by two Lely Grazeway systems (one on each set of two robots) that are installed at the end of the exit points of the barn where the cows go to the pasture. The cow is recognized by its neck or leg responder, and selection criteria are set through the T4C management program to guide the cows to different paddocks on a time related schedule.

The Grazeway can also be used for cow selection inside the barn for special groups or cows that need special treatments.

More milkings, more milk

What have been the results during the relatively short time the robots have been in use at Leibfried Dairy?

The cows are averaging 2.7 milkings each per day, Aaron said. They had gained near 20 pounds of milk per day on average but did go down a bit once they went on pasture because of the change in location away from the barn. They will be in the 21,000- to 22,000-pound milk average.

Note: Justin Segner, Lely technician with Argall, said pasturing almost involves a retraining process for the cows. During hot weather, they will be out on pasture early and late in the day and in the barn during the hotter midday. They usually come and go in groups, sometimes depending on what the dominant cow does, sometimes by habit.

Segner also said cows may like one milking box over others by habit or perhaps will change if the dominant cow is in the way. (I know that at home growing up, cows were creatures of habit and always took the same stanchion.)

While the three family members operate the dairy facility as a partnership with Aaron as manager, Francis as herdsman and Steven as crops manager, they still own their separate farms with the crop land (800 total acres owned and leased), which is rented as used for dairying.

The alfalfa is stored in bunkers and bags, and two of the three Harvestores hold corn silage and the other haylage. There is also a concrete silo used for ground ear corn.

Leibfried admits the four robots and two robot rooms (with two robots each) cost some $300,000 more than a Double 10 parlor setup. "We were looking for more milk per cow — that would have required more labor in the parlor," he said.

Leidfried Dairy Farms uses several outside consultants including Roger Hoppenjon, of Premier Nutrition, Mineral Point; Paul Brudell, Texas pasture consultant; and Dr. Will Schuler, of Hazel Green Veterinary Associates. The milk goes to Organic Valley Co-op.

More milk

The robotic milking system has accomplished what it was intended to do: increase milk flow from the herd without adding appreciable labor costs. At the same time, it unified the dairy farming efforts of the three family members while allowing each to own their own land.

As I've written in the past two years, robotic milking may well be the salvation of many smaller dairy herds across dairyland. It allows those who want to expand a dairy herd to a more profitable size to do so without entering the world of big time people and cattle management.

The Leedle family (eight robots) and York family (four robots), both from Lake Geneva, and now the Leibfried partnership (four robots) have gone that direction for somewhat similar reasons with pleasing results.

Argall Dairy Systems is now building two new robot milking systems of one and two robots that will bring the company to 32 robot units installed.

Grant county/dairy county

Interestingly, the Leibfried Dairy Farm is located amidst a great dairy farming area in Grant county, a county that ranks third with 421 (behind only Clark and Marathon) statewide in the number of dairy herds and fifth in number of cows with 44,500 behind only Clark, Marathon, Fond du Lac, Dane and Manitowoc.

Grant county is the leading alfalfa hay county with 48,200 acres harvested in 2012 and second (146,400 acres) only to Dane (166,000 acres) in acres of corn harvested.

I mention these facts because it seems that Grant county does not often enter conversations as a major dairy county, although it most certainly is. Now you know!

John F Oncken is owner of Oncken Communications, a Madison-based agricultural information and consulting company. He can be reached at 608-222-0624, or email him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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