Why Finke Farms Became a Digital Dairy (VIDEO)

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From his computer and smartphone, dairy farmer Craig Finke controls his barn’s lights and doors, and can prompt or monitor the cleaning of the barn. Meanwhile, robots feed and milk the farm’s 120 dairy cows.

Automation gives Finke more time to focus on management during his consistent interaction with the bovines, which he says love an occasional scratch on the back.

Digital dairy farm

“From a physical labor standpoint, I’m not nearly as ‘married to the cows’ as I used to be,” says Finke, who operates Finke Farms with his wife and mother in Washington County, about 50 miles from St. Louis. “With the amount of dedication dairy farming takes, you still spend a lot of time with the cows, but automation makes it different because you’re given the flexibility that was really hard to come by before.”

The Finke family operates one of the most automated dairy farms in the United States, and it wasn’t for the sake of loving gadgets. Finke began to have back problems that limited physical labor. Automation provided the solution to keep this fifth-generation farm in the dairy business and around for the sixth.

digital dairy farm

The farm’s 120 dairy cows spend their days freely roaming the barn. Photo by Michael D. Tedesco.

Where Dairy Cows Roam

Finke’s cows spend their day freely roaming the barn.

“The cows can decide to get milked, go eat, lay down, walk around or go get a scratch from the brush,” Finke says. “They decide what they want to do all day long in that area.”

Leg bands identify each cow to one of two robots, which milk each cow up to three times per day. The robotic milker gives her cherry- or caramel-flavored pellet treats for doing so. The machine identifies cows that enter the milk machine too often and releases them without a treat or milking. On the other hand, Finke and his part-time employees receive a computer-generated alert about cows that enter the milkers too seldom.

“The amount of information you can get from robots is incredible – milk quality, quantity, breeding information – there are very few limits to the information,” says Finke, who sets parameters to receive alerts of abnormal cow activity. “The data we get from cows and the automated system is second to none.”

digital dairy farm

The Washington County farm features an automatic milker. Photo by Michael D. Tedesco.

Automation Not an Automatic Yes

Finke called it a “gut-wrenching decision” to go automated on Nov. 18, 2013. Finke spent months looking at costs and research, even traveling to Holland to view a robotic feeding system unavailable in the United States.

Since the family’s adoption of automation and their addition of various cow comfort measures, the farm’s cows produce 30 to 35 percent more milk on average per cow, or just over 80 pounds (about 9.5 gallons) per cow per day.

“One of the things that shocks people the most is how well the cows are cared for,” Finke says. “Most people don’t realize that dairy farmers try to take care of their cows like their kids. The more effort we put in the cows, the more they return to us.”

digital dairy farm

Photo by Michael D. Tedesco

Finke’s cows act happy, produce milk well and behave quietly. The cows have access to brushes that scratch their backs and stalls with comfortable sand bedding. The barn’s flexible stalls move for the cows, so the cows don’t bruise or injure themselves when bumping against them.

“We still have a lot of contact with the cows, but it’s more managing the cows and working with them rather than the milking and feeding process and making sure the alleys are clean,” Finke says.

The animals stay clean and free of manure because an automated schedule flushes the barn frequently. The cows also receive a nutritionally specific diet generated from crops grown on the farm.

“Robot barns are extremely quiet,” Finke says. “You don’t hear cows bawling very often, and don’t hardly hear a moo out of them. Happy cows are usually quiet cows, and robotic barns make for very quiet cows.”

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