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MN family uses leading tech to advance robotic operation

Family committed, invested in livestock and processes GOODRIDGE, Minn. -- This story is about a robotic dairy barn. But don't be fooled by the fancy technology. It's really the story of a Minnesota farm family's commitment to a business they beli...

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Matthew Hanson, of Good-Vue Ayr Farms in Goodridge, M.N., is able to monitor many aspects of the farm's dairy cattle using software on both mobile and traditional computing devices. (Nick Nelson/Agweek)(Embargoed until January 30, 2017)

Family committed, invested in livestock and processes

GOODRIDGE, Minn. - This story is about a robotic dairy barn. But don't be fooled by the fancy technology. It's really the story of a Minnesota farm family's commitment to a business they believe in and way of life they love.

"This was a big step. But a lot of thought and evaluation went into it, and we feel comfortable it was the right decision for our family," Linda Hanson says.

Linda and her husband, Mike, opened the robotic dairy last fall. Their three sons - David, 25; Matthew, 23; and Steven, 20 - are involved in the dairy, too. David and Matthew have college degrees in animal science, with emphasis on dairy management. Steven is studying dairy management in college now.

The three sons are the fourth generation of Hansons to milk Ayrshire dairy cattle. "That's one of the reasons we built the barn," Mike says. "To keep the legacy going."

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He describes the robotic barn as "like the Field of Dreams. 'Build it and they will come.' That was my thought all the time. If I don't build it, they won't come (back to the farm.)."

Linda says, "We wanted to make this a business entity that could handle the boys coming home. Whether it was one or all three. And that's still a work in progress."

Technology

The barn has two robotic milkers that free the Hansons from milking the cows themselves. Though not unique or even particularly uncommon for large dairies, the robot milkers are rare for small- and modest-sized family operations such as the Hanson's.

But the Hanson dairy has a third robot, a feed dispenser, that's especially noteworthy.

"Robots are, arguably, old news to some extent. But this robotic feeding system we installed was just the second of its kind in the country when we started," Linda says. The first was in Pennsylvania.

The self-propelled robot scoops up and mixes feed in a storage area - which the Hansons call "the kitchen" - and then moves through the barn, dispensing it. A built-in sensor makes sure just the right amount of feed is dispensed, reducing waste and enhancing feed quality.

The feeding system can handle 16 different rations. That helps the cows get the nutrients they need, while taking advantage of cost differences in different types of feed. Those savings, while small initially, can add up over time and provide the increased efficiency that modern dairies need.

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The cows, for their part, seem fine with the robot. On the day of Agweek's visit, they lined up in their stalls calmly and patiently when the robot approached.

The barn uses other technology, too, including sensors around the cows' necks and a computerized system that the Hansons say help them better monitor the animals' health.

"I've got a good eye," Mike says. "I can walk through the barn and see a sick cow. But Matthew can come in here and (using information from the computer) see that she's sick almost before she knows she's sick."

The time once required for feeding and milking is spent now on herd management, Linda says.

"Instead of doing the physical job of milking the cows - yeah, you're next to 'em, you're touching them, but you're still milking them - you take that time for observation to manage your herd," Linda says.

"We're still doing what we love." Mike adds. "We're just doing it in a little different way."

And, yes, if you're wondering, the Hansons still have names for each of their cows.

Many changes

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Minnesota is a leading dairy state, ranking sixth in the number of dairy cows and eighth in milk production. But both in Minnesota and nationally, the dairy industry continues to change. Most of the small family dairy operations once common in rural areas are gone, replaced by a smaller number of bigger operators.. And capital and technology increasingly replace physical labor.

The Hansons' robotic barn reflects those trends.

In 1994, the Hansons operated one of 22 dairies in the eastern end of Pennington County. Now, they have the last one in the entire country.

At their former location, on the family farmstead, they had a 50-head operation. Their new location, 2.5 miles away, has space for 160 cows: 120 milking cows and 40 dry cows. The dry period is an important resting time for dairy cows, preparing them for their next period of producing milk.

The Hansons built up their herd by keeping some heifers, or young female cows that hadn't had their first calf, they otherwise would have sold. They also bought some cows from other dairy operators.

At the old barn, "a sweet little facility," two people were required to tend the 50 cows. "You could get by with one (for short stretches), but you really needed two," Linda says.

At the new site, only one person is required to tend all 160. Matthew, who lives nearby, does most of the work now. But Mike and Linda spend time there, too. And David and Steven play active, important roles in the family operation and return to help with it, their parents stress.

David lives at Nicollet, Minn., with his wife, Dr. Ashley Swenson, a 2016 graduate of the University of Minnesota Veterinary School. She works for Midwest Embryo Transfer and is partner in her family dairy, Forest Lawn Holsteins, which also uses robotic equipment.

Steven is a student at Ridgewater College in Willmar, Minn.

Do they go outside?

The new barn is on land that the Hansons own, land that once was part of the farm of Mike's great-aunt. Mike lived briefly on the farmstead before he got married, and then he and Linda lived there for a time before moving to their current home.

The new facility has plenty of open space around it. "If the boys decide in another five years they want to stick on another robot barn, there's room to expand," Mike says.

Mike and Linda, with help from their sons, visited a number of dairy farms before coming up with the design for the robot barn. They relied heavily on local businesses, including their local lender, to build and finance it.

"We had the equity to do it, but we certainly didn't the cash (to build it)," Linda says. "So we were able to leverage our equity."

The Hansons say the project came in roughly at budget. They decline to give its cost, but say it was well in excess of $1 million.

Initial construction, including digging the foundation, began in September of 2015; the shell of the building was up by early 2016. Work got going again in the spring of 2016, and the Hansons moved into the 116-feet-wide by 276-feet-long building in the fall of 2016.

The Hansons say they're often asked if the cows in the robotic barn ever go outside.

Short answer: No.

Longer answer: "The system was designed so that they don't need to," Linda says. "I'm not saying they never will go outside, but they don't need to."

Mike says, "Why would they want to go out?" The barn is well ventilated and insulated, and cows avoid the flies, mosquitoes and mud found found outside so often.

"Cows know where they have it good," he says.

Being indoors "takes a little more attention to foot health, and those kinds of things, when they're constantly on concrete. That's something we're paying attention to. So far, our problems with lameness have been nil," Linda says.

The barn is unheated, but it's designed so that the insulation and the cows' body heat won't allow its temperature to fall below 35 degrees, the Hansons says.

On the night before Agweek's visit, the temperature fell to 31 below at Goodridge and was still about 20 below while Agweek was there. Even so, the temperature inside was 38 degrees.

Matthew estimates the barn's interior temperature will reach no more than the mid-80s when summer temperatures reach the mid-90s.

'A good way to spend our lives'

The Hansons raise crops, too: primarily wheat and soybeans, and a little barley. They also have alfalfa and corn silage for the cows.

Both Mike and Linda are involved with the crops and cows. But Mike focuses more on the crops, with Linda concentrating on the dairy.

Linda grew up in a dairy family. Her parents and brother still run a dairy in eastern Iowa, and her sister, Sherry Newell, is senior communications manager for the St. Paul, Minn.-based Midwest Dairy Association.

Linda earned a college degree in dairy science. She was working as a sire analyst with a dairy artificial insemination company when she met Mike at a national Ayrshire convention.

Mike's line is, "I met someone who knows more about dairy than I do, so I married her."

Their sons share their parents' enthusiasm for dairy.

"I just like being around cows," Matthew says. "I always have."

Mike and Linda says they tried to make dairy enjoyable for their sons.

"Yeah, they had to milk the cows. But we've tried to let them have fun,too," Linda says. One example: The sons showed their cattle in judging contests, winning national honors.

Mike says he and Linda allowed their sons, while growing up, to make some of the decisions "so they'd feel it was their farm operation."

Linda thinks there may be still another reason the three want to return.

"Even though there were years that were very difficult, I don't think we (Mike and Linda) ever said, 'Oh, what a miserable life. No way you want to do this. Get off the farm." We always looked at farming as a good thing, not a bad thing," Linda says. "I think we showed them that farming is a good way to spend our lives."

She adds with a smile, "And we all like cows. I know, some people will say that makes us certifiably crazy."

Transition time

Mike is 63, Linda 61. They have no immediate plans to quit farming, but are prudently working with professionals to develop that a business structure that will best transition the operation to their sons.

"The boys can't walk in like I did in 1973 (to start farming). It's so capital intensive now. You just can't get started on your own," Mike says.

The dairy industry, like production agriculture in general, is volatile and unpredictable. As Linda says, "Only time will tell" is building the robotic barn was a good long-term business decision.

But she's sure of this:

"If you just sit there, wondering over and over if you should do something, you'll never get anywhere. This is what we came up," she says. "And we think it's pretty exciting."

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