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Drumgoon Dairy expands to become one of South Dakota's largest robotic operations

Drumgoon Dairy, which started with 1,400 cows, completed its third milking facility on the farm at the beginning of the year, bringing the total herd to 5,500 milking cows. The latest project, known as Drumgoon East, added 20 robots and made Drumgoon Dairy this one of the largest robotic operations in the state with the guided flow system and under one roof.

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A large crowd visited Drumgood Dairy in Lake Norden, South Dakota, on Sept. 18, 2021, in part to see the operation's new robotic milking project. Michelle Rook / Agweek

LAKE NORDEN, South Dakota — Rodney Elliott had no plans to include robotic milking units as part of his family’s dairy when they first immigrated to Lake Norden, South Dakota from Northern Ireland in 2006.

“My first time I would have witnessed robots was probably over 20 years ago in The Netherlands, and I remember being with a group of farmers and we basically laughed at them because they were slow, cumbersome, awkward, and we thought that will never catch on,” he recalled.

However, he said today’s robotic milking units are on the cutting edge and are the future of the industry.

Drumgoon Dairy, which started with 1,400 cows, completed its third milking facility on the farm at the beginning of the year, bringing the total herd to 5,500 milking cows. The latest project, known as Drumgoon East, added 20 robots and made Drumgoon Dairy this one of the largest robotic operations in the state with the guided flow system and under one roof.

Elliott said the robots each milk about 75 cows a day.

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“We opened Jan. 18, and it’s our first endeavor into robotic milking," he said. "So, inside we have 20 DeLaval V-300 robots milking about 1,470 cows.”

Drumgoon Dairy added robots in part because it’s more efficient, as the cows spend less than six minutes per milking in the box. This means they will spend more time eating and resting, which Elliott says will increase milk production and help their cows last longer. The robots also improve the productivity of the cows.

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Cows in the Drumgoon Dairy's robotic barn choose when and how often they want to be milked, which increases their comfort and efficiency. Michelle Rook / Agweek

“So for me, the robot is about consistency," Elliott said. "The robot does its job very well, very thorough, very consistent. It does the same job at the end of a 12-hour shift as it does at the start of a 12-hour shift. The cows love them. Cows like going to the robots because the V-300 stands for voluntary. So, it’s the cow’s choice when she wants to get milked. We’re not telling her; it's her choice when she wants to go.”

However, Elliot said the robots also fill a growing need they have for labor.

“We have robots pushing up the feed, automatic scrapers scraping the manure. We try to use as much automation in this barn as we can because, again, labor is becoming harder to come by, more expensive, and the willingness for people to stand and do some of the jobs that traditionally are on dairy farms is less and less,” he said.

Don Mayer, district manager for DeLaval, said the voluntary milking system increases milk production.

“Cows that are early in their lactation are being milked somewhere between three and four times a day. And then when a cow gets later in her lactation, she’ll be milked twice a day. So, it really gives them an opportunity to dial in the number of milkings based on the stage of lactation and maximize her productivity,” he said.

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He said each cow is also being milked individually, instead of with a group of animals, which makes for a low stress environment.

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Drumgoon Dairy has 20 DeLaval V-300 robots milking about 1,470 cows in its new Drumgoon East unit. Michelle Rook / Agweek

The information collected from the robotic system is also beneficial for dairy operations.

Mayer says, “Each one of the quarters that is being harvested is weighed and recorded and so it the conductivity," Mayer said. "So, the quality of the milk is measured.” That assures that the milk being harvested is safe.

Elliot said the $12 million project has and will continue to have a positive economic impact on the area.

“We used local construction companies, local vendors. Obviously, the equipment came from abroad but anything that we could buy locally or anybody we could use locally we used and that was a choice of ours,” he said.

The milk from Drumgoon East is being processed into cheese at Agropur in Lake Norden, but they also sell milk from their other two barns to Valley Queen Cheese in Milbank. The dairy also buys feed ingredients locally, and the elevator delivers several loads of corn every day. They also bought nearly 2,000 acres of corn silage and 3,000 acres of haylage from area grain farmers this season.

“There’s lots of local benefit to the community,” he said.

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Hundreds of people lined up to see the new technology at their open house on Saturday, Sept. 18. Elliott said the public is intrigued by robotics, but he admittedly was surprised by the large turnout. He said they wanted to share this development with area consumers. They have held past open houses and have always strived to be transparent.

“We have nothing to hide. We are proud of what we do. We want people to come and see that this is good for the community and good for the environment,” he said.

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