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From 8500 cows to 240

Nov. 8, 2013 | 0 comments


Tom York has done a bit of traveling during his life: From his home farm at Lake Geneva to the UW-Madison CALS f or a dairy science degree; on to Ecuador as a member of the Peace Corps; west to Kansas to manage a mega dairy; and last February, back home to Lake Geneva to start a new 240-cow herd milked with robots.

Along the way he married Carty, whom he met in Ecuador, not during his tour as a Peace Corp member but on a later visit. They are now the parents of three children.

Tom admits his eight years as assistant and general manager of the 8500-cow, 80-employee Frontier Dairy in the western corner of Kansas were interesting but he felt the urge to return to a smaller dairy operation, where he could have more hands-on management and was closer to his Wisconsin roots.

Time to go home

The time and opportunity was right to make that move about a year ago. Tom left his employment at Frontier Dairy last February and the Yorks came back to Lake Geneva where he was raised.

Tom's parents, Walter and Mary – who are also the parents of Keith and Ken Walter, who milk 1300 cows at the well-known and the adjoining Merry-Water Farm and have nine children – were ready to again have a dairy on the farm on which they had milked cows for many years.

Everything fell in place and the family moved back to Wisconsin where Tom and Carty would start anew: First, tearing down the long-empty old dairy barn and then constructing a 157x216-foot, 236-stall, tunnel-ventilated barn and the installation of four Lely robots.

The construction started in June and the first cows – all Jerseys 0150 were milked on Oct. 23. The cows came from New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and included purchases at auctions and private sale, Tom explains.

"I'm pleased with the cows," he says. "Seventy-five percent or more have proven to be good cows, and after a week going through the robots, we're still pushing maybe 30 cows and have sent two that didn't work well in the robot to my brother's at Merry-Water."

Why robots?

"We had talked to a lot of people and done a good deal of research while in Kansas and it seemed the cows milked in robotic barns were calm and happy. We also felt that my wife and I could handle 240 cows without a lot of outside help," Tom says. "Several times I visited Tom and Jennifer Leedle, just a few miles away, who have been using eight Lely robots for about a year."

Tom's parents, Walter and Mary, although in their 80s, still own the 133 acres on which the dairy is located and visit the dairy daily to feed calves.

"Yes, they retired, but that only lasted about 10 days," Tom says. "They love the cows and want to keep busy. Dad always wanted to have cows on this property where he milked for so long, again."

Two weeks is not enough time to fully judge the value of the robots at York Dairy but they surely seem to be working well elsewhere across the dairy world. Although there are no accurate figures, the thinking is that there are some 100-150 (possibly more) farms using robots in Wisconsin.

A growing technology

So far, robots have been going in on smaller dairies of maybe 60-100 cows which want to expand without going into the big labor-management arena. In many cases, the desire to bring a son or daughter into the farm business prompts the move to robots.

A couple of years ago, Tom and Jennifer Leedle were determined to keep their family-sized farm near Lake Geneva a viable dairy operation without expanding to a large mega-dairy herd size, where they would need a much larger labor force and face the accompanying management challenges.

They were milking 230 cows out of a series of barns built over the years and realized they had to update and expand if the operation was to support a second family – son Jason and his growing family.

After considerable research and much discussion, they settled on eight Lely A4 robots that would handle 450 milking cows and they went ahead with construction.

It is just about a year later and Tom Leedle says his eight robots have been working up to expectations and that son Jason, who is the herdsman, is able to handle any challenges that have come up.

Robotic milking is still new to most dairy producers. They haven't had a need or reason to get involved but it is a technology that is rather quietly making its way into the rather traditional dairy world.

Some history

The first robotic milking goes back to about 1992 in the Netherlands and proved to be an innovative and popular technology. The proof of success is shown by the over 10,000 robots being used worldwide today, mostly in Europe.

Rick Rugg, Westby, Lely regional manager, says that 65-70% of the new dairy construction in parts of Western Europe is robots and that Wisconsin dairy producers are now considering robots as an option in their dairying plans.

The first robotic milking system in the U.S. dates to the summer of 2000 when two Lely robots were installed on the Pete Knigge dairy at Omro. The Knigges are still using two robots although they were updated a couple of years ago.

Scott Argall, owner of Argall Milking Systems, Belleville, who installed both the Leedle and York robots, says farmers have gone to robots for a number of reasons. "Some were milking a small herd and wanted to continue for 10 or a dozen years but had physical problems – a single robot lets them continue," he says. "Expansion to add a family member is a common reason."

Jeff Hahn, DeLaval Voluntary Milking Systems Specialist at Waunakee, suggests that mega dairies are also looking to expand by adding robots.

Lely and DeLaval now dominate the US robot market but GEA is coming as is Galaxy, which had a display at World Dairy Expo. BouMatic is marketing a robot in Europe but is not yet selling in the US.

A revolution

and evolution

A myriad of technical improvements will be added at a rapid rate and that we've just seen the start of a true robotic milking evolution. In spite of predictions that all dairy herds in the future will be in the thousands of cows big, I'd guess that there will be many, smaller family dairies milking 100-500 cows with robots and doing well.

Tom and Carty York, who spent eight years in a big dairy operation, are betting on the future of a successful 240-cow dairy herd milked by robots. Why not? They've had the education, gained the experience, done the research, utilized the experts and built the system.

Yes, robotic milking was at best a joke 30 years ago, a dream 20 years ago and an actuality today. My guess is that 20 years from now they'll be as common as milking parlors. Watch!

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 e-mail him at jfodairy@chorus.net.

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