Udder Delight: Robots Rejuvenate Dairy Farm’s Milking Process
At one Southern Illinois dairy farm, cows are milked at their leisure, instead of the typical twice-a-day schedule. But it’s not the fifth-generation dairy farmers doing the milking; the cows are milked by robots, allowing the farmers to spend more time on other farm duties and with their family.
No Time for Family
Less than two years ago, brothers Kyle and Kurt Johnson faced an outdated milking parlor, labor issues and limited family time. In a progressive move, these young farmers became one of the first Illinois dairy farms to adopt robotic milking technology.
“We didn’t want to give up milking cows,” says Kyle, who has farmed with his brother for eight years. “We both love it. But we knew we had to give up something if we wanted to keep going. The robots were our way out. We could still keep the cows and still milk and not have that ‘milk-twice-a-day’ routine.”
The Johnson brothers own Villa Rosa Inc., a family dairy farm and custom hay business in Greenville, about 45 minutes east of St. Louis. Kyle lives on the farm with his wife, Kristy, and 4-year-old son, Kaleb. Kurt lives two miles away with his wife, Whitney. Grandpa Bill Schrage lives in an apartment above the old milking parlor on the farm.
The brothers took over Grandpa’s farm after earning bachelor’s degrees from Southern Illinois University.
“This was my grandfather’s farm, and basically, growing up, this was our daycare,” says Kyle, whose uncles farmed it before him. “We were out here helping him from knee-high on. We both fell in love with it.”
Switch to Automation
Soon after assuming the farm, the Johnson brothers found they worked 16-hour days and still fell behind. Their days included milking 80 cows from 4 to 8 a.m. Then they worked eight hours on chores, maintenance, fieldwork and forage harvesting. By 4 p.m. they again were attaching milk machines to cows for four hours.
Kyle’s son was asleep when he left the house and ready for bed when he finished a day’s work. The milking parlor was outdated. Labor was an issue. Expansion was inhibited. The brothers first considered building a new parlor and hiring employees. However, as they toured Wisconsin dairy farms with robots, they learned that automation was a more economical choice for their farm.
The Johnsons overcame the two major hurdles: financing and service. They qualified for a low-interest loan for beginning farmers from the Farm Service Agency to buy two robots valued at $190,000 each. They also located a dealer to service them in Southern Illinois.
Two Lely Astronaut A3 robots started milking their herd at 4 p.m. Dec. 8, 2009.
“That’s a day I will never forget,” Kyle says.
Cows Are Happy, Too
The robotic chutes are open to the cows day or night, except for the two 15-minute wash cycles. The cows enter the chute an average of three times a day to eat high-energy feed while being milked. This frequency, combined with the high-energy feed, has increased per-cow milk production by 15 to 20 percent, or more than 1 gallon per day, over the previous method. The farm now averages just more than 8 gallons per cow daily and has increased the herd size by 20 since the robots arrived.
Outside of milking time, the farm’s 100 cows graze pastures in summer or roam a free-stall barn in winter. Each cow wears a neckband with a transponder. This communicates with the computer system to store information for each cow, including feed quantities, milk production and statistics, such as cow weight and udder health.
Kyle believes his herd is calmer now that the cows give milk at their leisure, instead of the brothers scheduling their twice-daily milking.
“I still have just as much human interaction with my cows,” he says. “I’m still out in my lot. I still make sure my cows are healthy. I still have cows that come up to me, and I pet them.”
The difference is he better manages other tasks, too.