LISBON, N.D. - You may have seen robotic dairies where cows approach a machine to be milked when they want. You likely have seen "rotary" parlors that put more than 100 cows on a merry-go-round to be milked by people.
But you've never seen anything like Qual Dairy at Lisbon.
In April, the family installed a "robotic, rotary" dairy parlor - only the fourth in North America and the 15th in the world.
The equipment is manufactured by GEA, a German company, and distributed by Leedstone Inc., of Melrose, Minn. (One other similar operation is in Wisconsin and another is being set up near Willmar, Minn. Two others are in Canada.)
The system puts 60 cows on a 70-foot diameter round platform. Each milking stall is equipped with its own robot - 60 robots in all, each standing like a gleaming cabinet next to each cow. The system includes many food safety features and is highly data-driven, customized to each cow, each udder, each teat. The dairy is provided with a state-of-the-art freestall barn facility that holds up to 1,100 cows.
Alan Qual, 66, declines to say how much the new facilities cost, except to acknowledge it's in the "multi-millions." It's financed through AgCountry Farm Credit Services and Farm Credit Leasing, with short-term financing from a local Bremer Bank.
The Quals have been farming since Louis "Bud" Qual came home from World War II in the late 1940s. Alan and his wife, Julie, have sons Mark, 36, and Jon, 39, in the operation. Alan's brother, Rodney "Rod" Qual, 58, and his wife, Angie, are partners and have sons Nathan, 25, and Tyler, 30, in the operation. The families have nine grandchildren and one on the way.
Family responsibilities overlap but some specialize more in the grain, haying, beef or fertilization work at various times of the year. The dairy has about a dozen employees, plus family members. On the grain side, they have three full-time employees.
Groups of 150 Holsteins are ushered from the freestall barn into the parlor. Once onto the platform, it turns at a rate of one turn per nine minutes. That's roughly 220 cows an hour, or one every 16 seconds.
If the cow fidgets or kicks, the system may miss and it tries again within a few seconds. If the system fails after three minutes, a parlor worker steps in.
Most cows are finished milking in about five to seven minutes, allowing another two to three minutes to come on and off the platform. The cows are entirely relaxed, even chewing their cud as they go around. If there is a problem with the system, the dairy is provided spare robots and 10 control consoles. Leedstone is able to provide a technician to the facility within two hours.
The human "milker" can touch the picture of the rotary platform to reveal data about a particular cow. A pink color indicates below-average production, and the worker can look to see how much below, and whether there is some explanation. For example, the cow might be in "standing heat," or ready to breed. Or it might simply have had trouble attaching, or some other problem.
"The milker has to know what's going on with that cow," Alan says. The operator can monitor the production from each of four "quarters" of the udder. Typically, cows tend to produce more milk from the rear two quarters, so the machines pulsate faster in the back to even out the milking time.
As with all robotic milking, there is a learning curve, both for the people and the cows. In the first milking in April, seven Germans with the GEA company attended, as well as representatives from Leedstone.
The first time cows were introduced to the parlor, they had to be nudged in. The first milking took three hours for a grouping of 130 or 140 cows. The second time took two hours. "By the third milking, probably half or three-fourths were walking on by themselves. "We were amazed, totally amazed," Julie says.
Out of 900 cows that were introduced to the system the first week, only seven couldn't be on the rotary system, which is slightly better than the 10 percent non-compliance average for herds new to the system.
The freestall barn is its own technological wonder.
It is 320 feet by 365 feet, and cross-ventilated. The north side features a bank of 96 fans, each about 4.5 feet in diameter, controlled in groups with variable frequency. The fans pull air across, based on data from two indoor weather stations, exchanging air every 1.5 minutes. It also has an in-floor cable-scraper.
Every two hours, the scraper cleans alleys, dropping the manure into a flume. Moving at 9 feet per minute, cows cross it without apparent concern.
The Quals put feed next to a curb and another GEA robot is guided by metal pins in the floor, traveling through the facility seven times a day, pushing the feed within reach. The cows are monitored constantly for how much they move and eat, giving barn workers a hint about whether they're healthy or perhaps going into estrus or heat.
The milk goes through a 300-gallon milk vat, but through filters and into a plate-cooler chiller system. At 34 to 35 degrees it is immediately piped into two or three waiting milk tanker trailers which are highly insulated, keeping it under 40 degrees for two days or more. The milk is sold through Associated Milk Producers Inc., but goes on a contract through a Fargo plant. AMPI once owned the plant but it now is owned by Kemps, which includes the Cass-Clay brand.
Rod says the system is expensive, yes, but in an era of volatile milk prices, many existing dairies with aging leaders are calling it quits. "It's kind of a legacy move on our part," Rod says, adding, "We've done several budgets and I think it should work."
Other facts about Qual Dairy, Inc., in Lisbon:
• The Qual carousel rotary parlor fits 60 cows with 60 robots. Without robotics, the carousel would handle 80 cows. The largest non-robotic rotary system the Quals have heard of handles 106 cows, milked by five people in the parlor.
• Liquid manure water is placed into a lagoon. It is later removed and put into 6,000-gallon tanks that take them to the field. The liquid receiving station in the field holds 12,000 gallons and is applied with an application tanker of 6,000 gallons. This allows them to travel farther than some systems with hoses.
• Canadians using a similar system have three milkings per day, compared to the twice-daily system for the Quals. The third milking can improve total milk production, but increases labor and cleaning.