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Published October 08, 2012, 10:01 AM

Flipping the switch

It’s been called Middleroad Acres since the 1930s. That’s because the farmstead is bisected by a township road.

By: Mikkel Pates, Agweek

CHANDLER, Minn. — It’s been called Middleroad Acres since the 1930s.

That’s because the farmstead is bisected by a township road. But Bill and Merri Post, who run the 120-cow milking operation, also will be in the high-tech fast lane before Christmas, with the help of milking robots. The Posts are among dozens of farms in the region to use the systems, compared with none five years ago.

It’s a big step for Bill, 44, who has been milking since he was 10 years old in stanchion barns.

The couple lives on property that has been in Bill’s family since the 1930s. His older brother, Ben, farms a mile and a half away and also dairies. The Posts have been thinking about robotic dairying for about eight years.

A choice

For a couple in their 40s, it was a question of whether to expand or get out of dairy. Milking in the stanchion — kneeling and bending — had been increasingly hard on Bill’s body. “We knew we needed to do something different,” he says. “We needed to do something that helped our cows. This fit.”

“We thought, do we go into beef?”

What do we do?” Merri says. Beef would be a problem because they wouldn’t have sufficient pasture. Bill and Ben farm about 1,200 acres, with corn, soybean and alfalfa in rotation. Most of it is owned within the family.

“I asked my husband, ‘Walk with me through the day that we would sell our dairy cows.’ And we realized that wasn’t an option for us,” Merri says.

The Posts were sold on robotics when Gorter’s Clay and Dairy Equipment in Pipestone, Minn., the local Lely Inc. equipment distributor, took them to Canada to look at a robotic dairy in 2007.

“I thought everybody should have two,” Bill says, smiling. “The way the cows worked with the robots. The cows were very mild-mannered. They went to get milked when they wanted to go. Nobody was chasing them around.”

Merri, who grew up five miles away on a dairy farm in Edgerton, Minn., agreed. She is a licensed practical nurse who in 2002 took an off-farm job as a coordinator with the Southwest Minnesota Dairy Profit Group, part of a nonprofit grant program through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.

One herdsman

Bill likes working with one herdsman and has had the same one for more than 10 years. If he had many more cows, he’d be managing people, and not the cows, he says.

“It’s just going to help us manage light years even better,” Merri says.

The machines do a number of things that ordinary equipment and employees don’t. For example, they check electrical conductivity of the milk so the dairyman catches the onset of mastitis disease more quickly. The cow is weighed every time she milks. Rumination collars monitor how much the cow chews her cud to watch for sickness. The collars also monitor how much the cow moves around, which indicates whether she is in heat.

“I assume the routine is going to change dramatically,” Bill says of the transition. “Right now, we spend five hours a day milking — 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. With the robot, we’ll still be in the barn, still feeding, but we won’t have the milking chores. The milking will take place all day long, except for a half hour a day when we’re shut down for cleaning, and analyzing data coming from the robots.”

If Bill bas to be gone for a day, milking becomes a chore that Merri can handle.

The Posts have the robotic dairy set up so expansion can be done more easily if their children want to come home to join the business. “If they don’t, it’s something Bill and I can handle. It’s something that was really important to us.”

Sarah is 17, and Jacob is 15. Both are involved in 4-H and have cattle and horse projects. Both love the farm, but will pursue college and an off-farm job before coming home. Each of them actually own a cow in the barn, so they learn the business and have a vested interest. “They get paid for milk off that cow and for any calves — bulls or heifers out of that production,” Merri says. “Their breeding decisions matter.”

“I don’t want the kids to come home because we have robots,” Bill says. “I want them to come home if they want to dairy. There’s times when milk prices are tough and you have to enjoy things other than the income. Sometimes you get up in the morning and see a newborn calf. That might be the best part of your day.”

A big idea

Merri thinks the idea of robotics is “going to be big” in the region’s dairying, even though it amounts to only 1 percent or 2 percent of the cows in the region, according to company estimates.

“To remain a small dairy, you need to be efficient; you need to be aggressive,” she says. “I think this is going to be an answer for the people who want to stay at the size we want to stay at.”

She won’t argue the “pro-large or pro-small” dairy issue. “I say there’s room for all of us in there, and really, if small and large dairies work together, they can give efficiencies to each other,” she says. A big dairy will buy more feed and the small dairy can get a feed byproduct from that big dairy. It makes the feed cheaper for both dairies.

Friends joke that the change will mean they’re not in the barn anymore. “That really isn’t true,” Merri says. “We say it’s going to take as much time, but the time is going to change.”

The Posts see all kinds of ancillary advantages to the change. They’ll use the farm’s 1970s-era milking barn as a calf barn. It’s already equipped with tunnel ventilation, which uses fresh air coming in from outside. It’s also equipped with long-day lighting, a system that puts a 20-foot candle of light at the eye level of the cows, running at least 12 to 16 hours a day. It stimulates the pituitary to signal the cows to eat more and produce more milk, providing health benefits for calves.

In her consulting job, Merri says she’s had an opportunity to see many operations. She suggests that when other farmers decide to expand, they research and visit other farms. “Ask them what they’d do the same, what they would do differently,” she says.

While looking for help in building, she and Bill visited the Mark and Amy Van Essen farm near Leota, about 10 miles away.

The switch

In weeks leading up to the switch-over, the Posts have ramped up cow numbers gradually. The dairy was supposed to have been ready for cows on Sept. 1, but that moved back to mid-November because of a variety of unforeseen glitches

Once the switchover happens — hopefully before winter weather — they expect three days of round-the-clock monitoring, followed by a grueling three-week transition. Then things should get better.

“We are a (genetically) closed herd, so we couldn’t buy any cattle to get into this,” Merri says, adding that the Posts are a closed herd with Ben. They bring in new bloodlines through artificial insemination and with embryo transfer. It’s a self-imposed system because they sell breeding bulls, breeding stock and breeding heifers, when they’re not building up for a new barn. “We’re Lucosis-test negative, and Johnes disease test-negative,” Merri says, which is a marketing advantage for the bull side of the business. “Opening up the herd would put that at risk.”

In trying to decide whether to install sand bedding or organic bedding, Merri had words of wisdom. “I finally said to Bill that Jim Salfer, (regional dairy Extension Service specialist at the University of Minnesota in St. Cloud) said you either deal with broken equipment, or broken cows. Boom — Bill immediately said ‘I’ll deal with broken equipment any day.’ We knew we wanted to do sand.”

Financial decision

“We tried doing it five years ago and it seemed like the doors were closed,” Merri says. “We just prayed about it and God kept opening doors.” The transition required a firm estate plan that allows them to purchase land they rent from Bill’s dad as part of their feed supply. Most of their milk goes to AMPI, either at Dawson or Paynesville, in Minnesota, or to Sanborn, Iowa.

Lely Inc. manufactures the dominant robotic systems in the region, according to dairy suppliers. Three Lely dealers in Minnesota say there are about 123 machines in 43 communities in the region, mostly in Minnesota, but a few spilling over into the Dakotas or just across the Iowa border. At 60 cows per system, that’s about 7,380 cows.

Prices generally are going down, but a single machine is roughly $200,000, dealers say. The cost is down to about $160,000 if a farm gets four of the machines, and depending on options.

Bill Post says it may not be the choice for a beginning dairyman. “If you’re 20 years old, this isn’t what you’re going to want to do. You’re not going to have the financial security to do it, so you might have to be a little seasoned.

The main factor was making room for the kids, Merri says. She quotes her mother-in-law, who told her, “If you’re not moving forward you’re standing still. And if you’re standing still, you’re moving backwards.”

“I think that’s right,” Merri says.