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Robots seen as wave of future in dairying

Bill and Merri Post

CHANDLER — Bill Post has been milking cows long enough to be able to recognize his son’s prized 4-H dairy cow by her udder and her legs below the knees. After all, that is his view of the cows these days as they step inside the chute at Middleroad Acres and prepare to be milked by robots.

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The technology is rather new to dairy farms in Minnesota, and certainly in the southwest part of the state. It’s led to numerous tours and visits to this rural Chandler farm by inquisitive ag professionals and fellow dairymen wondering if it might be something they could bring to their farm.

The Posts — Bill and wife Merri, along with daughter Sarah and son Jake — have grown accustomed to tour requests, but they still have work to do. They’re hoping an open house — slated for June 7 at the farm — will help answer the questions from inquiring minds and showcase what may well be the wave of the future in the U.S. dairy industry.

It was about a decade ago when Bill Post first read about the use of robotic milkers in dairying. The article was in an issue of Hoard’s Dairyman, and the technology was being implemented on some dairy farms in the Netherlands.

At the time, the Posts were milking more than 60 Holstein cows in a stanchion barn at Middleroad Acres. It was the same barn where Bill grew up milking cows alongside his dad and siblings.

The farm, in the Post family since the fall of 1929 when Bill’s grandfather purchased the land, has been home to dairy cows for more than 80 years. It was hard work, and spending 35 years of his life milking cows in stanchions was beginning to take its toll on Bill.

“I can’t say I ever had a lot of pain, but I took a lot of ibuprofen,” he said. Doses taken morning, noon and night helped him get through the day — every day.

Bill knew his regimen couldn’t last forever — and the mere idea of selling the cows was too much to consider.

“I knew I wanted to stay in the dairy industry — I knew I couldn’t sell the cows,” he said. “There’s been cows here my whole life and much of my father’s life. To not have cows here would just be foreign.”

Answering one question left several others in its wake, however. If the Posts were to keep the cows, who was going to do the milking? Their kids weren’t going to stay on the farm forever. Sarah was nearing high school graduation at the time (she’s now a dairy production major at South Dakota State University in Brookings).Jake, now a junior at Edgerton High School, is a two-sport athlete, 4-H’er and team roper.

“If I hired more people, my cows would only do as well as the poorest milker,” Bill said.

Ruminating on the idea for more than a year, the Posts finally decided to get a better look at robotic milkers. In 2005, Bill and Merri traveled to Canada to tour a handful of different dairy farms using the technology. When they returned, they visited an additional dairy near Hutchinson that was also using robots.

“At that time, we realized we had a lot of estate planning (to do),” Bill said. “We had to get things in order. We had to have all of our finances in a row before we did this.”

The robotic milkers and computerized recording system to track cow production aren’t cheap, and then there was the need to build a new barn as well.

“Typically with robots, you pay for your labor ahead,” said Bill.

By the summer of 2012, the Posts were ready to move ahead with their plans. Bill had purchased a dozen bred heifers from his older brother’s dairy, Corner Post Farm, earlier in the year, and their milking herd had swelled to nearly 90 head by the time construction of the new barn began in August.

The tunnel-ventilated barn was completed before the end of the year, and the robotic milkers were operational on Dec. 11.

The Posts purchased two robotic milkers for their new barn, and designed the building to house first- and second-year milkers in one-half of the barn and third-year milkers and older cows in the other half.

“Each robot will handle about 60 cows, depending on their level of production,” Bill explained.

Earlier this month, the Posts were milking 118 cows, but their milking herd has been as high as 127 cows.

With the use of robots, the cows are milked whenever they want. Nearly all of them approach the milking area on their own — even waiting in line to get their udder emptied.

There are about 12 to 16 cows that Bill has to lead to the robot twice per day.

“They just don’t have the drive to do it themselves,” he said.

The herd averages about 2.6 milkings per day, though on an individual cow basis, some cows might visit the robotic milkers as few as once per day or as frequent as six times daily. Each time they are milked, the cows are fed pellets packed with protein, energy and molasses to create a tasty treat.

“The cows get between two pounds and 20 pounds of pellets — it’s determined by their level of production,” Bill said. The pellets are in addition to silage offered at the manger 24/7.

After utilizing the robots in the operation for more than a year, the Posts have seen increased production in their dairy herd.

“The consistency of the robot, and the studies the University of Minnesota is doing, they see this as the wave of the future,” Bill said. “Consistency of milking is very important, and this is always on schedule.”

Bill said during the first six months with the robotic milkers, cows maintained steady production. Since then, their milk output has continued to climb. He attributes that, in part, to the way his barn is designed. Every cow is within 80 feet of food, water, a place to lay down and a milking machine — basically, all of their creature comforts.

When the cows are ready to be dried up to prepare for calving, Merri said their protein pellets are cut to 2 pounds per day.

“Cutting pellets cuts their milk production back,” she said. “It makes for a nicer dry-off than we had in the other barn.”

While the Posts have noted numerous benefits to having robots milk their cows, perhaps the most noticeable is that their lives no longer revolve around milking. Friends have noticed that Bill is actually able to attend his son’s sporting events in the evening, and the Posts are able to spend more time on other activities.

“It’s not that you don’t have chores,” Merri quickly added. “(Bill) just couldn’t go to those things before. When one kid was doing something, the other had to do chores. When Sarah went off to college, we lost a milker.

“We get a lot more done outside now and we have double the cattle,” she said.

In addition to the dairy, Bill farms with his older brother, Ben. They have a combined 1,200 acres of corn, soybean, oats and alfalfa ground, as well as pasture, and share the use of equipment. The two also jointly raise young stock and bulls that are marketed for breeding. Their herd consists of black and white and red and white Holsteins.

Both families operate closed dairies as a way to reduce health risks to their herds.

“We don’t buy any animals,” Bill said. “The only new genetics we have are through embryo transfer and A.I. (artificial insemination) work.”

All of the calves are raised on the farm — heifers are kept for dairy production, bulls are raised and sold for breeding and steers are around from time to time.

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.

Julie Buntjer
Julie Buntjer joined the Daily Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington and graduate of Worthington High School, then-Worthington Community College and South Dakota State University, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. At the Daily Globe, Julie covers the agricultural beat, as well as Nobles County government, watersheds, community news and feature stories. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework (cross-stitch and hardanger embroidery), reading, travel, fishing and spending time with family. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at www.farmbleat.areavoices.com.
(507) 376-7330
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