Automation could be norm in 10 years

WATKINS, Minn. -- Even with lower milk prices in the last six to eight months, interest in robotic milking machines and automatic calf feeders remains high, according to one of the region's largest dealers of this kind of equipment.

WATKINS, Minn. -- Even with lower milk prices in the last six to eight months, interest in robotic milking machines and automatic calf feeders remains high, according to one of the region's largest dealers of this kind of equipment.

Don Brower, is equipment sales manager for the Stearns Vet Outlet in Melrose, Minn., a company that serves central Minnesota -- west to Morris, south to Mankato, east to Minneapolis and up to the Canadian border.

"Several people are waiting for the milk price to recover," he says of interested parties. "We have just one installation crew of four people, and we'll stay with that until we can't keep up."

Stearns Vet Outlet started out as a veterinary medicine supply store and is owned by two brothers who are veterinarians -- David and Dan Tomsche. In the late 1990s, the company got into the milking equipment business, selling parlor installation and stanchion barn equipment.

In summer 2008, the company became a distributor for the Lely robotic milking machines and automatic calf feeders.


"David, in particular, thought the robotic technology was going to be a big hit in the Midwest," Brower says.

Of course, there are skeptics.

The Lely conversion

Brower says there are many reasons people look askance at the systems. Some think the machine simply won't attach to a cow or don't think the cow will stand still for a milking.

"That's their initial response. But in fact, the cows are more content because the machines do it the same way every day."

The other obstacle is price.

But Brower says that when labor is figured for cows now milking 2.8 to 3.1 times per day, it is more reasonable. He says the price of the machines decline based on numbers in an installation site -- at $205,000 for a single machine; $190,000 each for each if you put in two; $175,000 each for four.

"For annual maintenance costs, we tell them to budget in $5,000 per robot, which compares with maintenance for a typical parlor -- the same or cheaper, depending on the type of parlor," he says.


"The size of the dairies that have been interested so far have tended to be smaller -- 60 cows to 300 seems to more common," he says.

Lely is based in the Netherlands, and that's where the equipment is manufactured.

Lely USA originally was located in Wilson, N.C., but later migrated to Pella, Iowa, to co-locate with the Vermeer Manufacturing Co.

Alexander van der Lely was friend of the Vermeer family of round baler fame.

The Vermeers of Pella had founded Vermeer Manufacturing in 1948 in Pella and made a big hit with their signature yellow, large, round balers in 1972.

Also in 1948, the van der Lely family in the Netherlands started manufacturing fingerwheel rakes in the Netherlands. Lely became involved in U.S. farming 40 years ago, primarily in fertilizing, tillage and grassland machinery.

In 1992, Lely started making and marketing its Astronaut robotic milkers in the Netherlands. In early 2000, the company began selling them in the United States and, in 2006, advanced to A3, the third-generation model Brower is selling today. Two of the robots can come in a single shipping container.

A single robot milker will handle about 5,000 pounds of milk per day. That would be 50 cows averaging 100 pounds, 60 cows averaging 80 pounds.


"Most of the systems fall between 60 to 65 cows per robot," Brower says.

Robotic systems have been in the region for about three years.

There are two other Lely dealers in Minnesota. He says Stearns Vet Outlet installed its first system Nov. 17, 2008, near Hutchinson, Minn.

"We have seven working now," Brower says. In Minnesota there are about 30 systems working. "By the end of the year, I think we'll have 20."

Last fall, Brower and representatives from a couple of other U.S. dealership traveled to Holland. They toured five robotic Lely dairies there, as well as the manufacturing plant.

"It was just to see how they set them up in Europe, the culture, and get to know Lely a little better," he says.

One startling fact is that in Europe, 65 percent of the new installations and upgrades are robotic.

"It's very common there," he says. "I'd say that within five years, we'll be at the same level in the U.S. I would say in 10 years this'll be very common."


Calf-eteria plan

While in the Netherlands, Brower saw his one of his calf feeders on a farm.

"Labor savings is the No. 1 reason for them," he says. "People are willing to work, but not two hours in the morning and then two hours in the afternoon on a split shift. If you have a dairy with 200 to 500 cows, you often need people working three hours in the morning and three hours at night, and every day.

"In my mind, the robots aren't taking employment opportunities away from people because dairymen are struggling to find good help," Brower says. "So this is their replacement."

Typically, a group of 25 calves might take up to two for a conventional system.

"With this machine, you walk out, check calves -- make sure they've all drunk their portion, make sure the calves look healthy and are standing -- and that's your feeding chores for the day.

The machines have their own automatic wash systems, but the person has to make sure they make sure it is functioning.

The system he was installing is the first large pasteurization system Stearns Vet Outlet for an automatic calf feeding system. This one is on the 750-cow Landwehr Dairy near Watkins, Minn., an hour west of Minneapolis and about 20 minutes south of St. Cloud, Minn.


The pasteurization system works at up to 8 gallons per minute. The milk travels in 1-inch pipe to the calf feeder, each with four stations and handling up to 100 calves total. The pasteurizer alone costs roughly $32,000 and the entire system -- including the four stations, pipeline a total of roughly $90,000, he says.

"Every situation is very different," he says.

Here, they built two small pole barns to grow weanling calves from 300 to 600 pounds. In the past, this particular dairy had hired someone else to custom-feed the calves and had been dumping waste milk down the drain essentially

Under this system, the milk is pasteurized every other day.

"The calves feed three to six times a day," he says. "The more times a day you let them come, the smaller the portion is. We set them up for a total of 8 liters per day per calf when they get 2 weeks old. That makes the calf healthier and stronger."

With automated feeding, calves are kept in a group and get exercise. They're not bottled up in individual pens.

"They get stronger bones and muscles because they get more exercise," Brower says.

The Lely system installed on this farm means taking waste milk from the main dairy, pasteurizing it and sending it through a pipeline system to the calf feeder. The waste milk includes otherwise un-saleable milk produced by cows that may have a variety of circumstances. Some may be treated with antibiotics, or have higher somatic cell counts because of a mastitis problem.


"The calves get good, clean milk and grow faster on pasteurized milk than on milk replacer," Brower says. "It basically kills any contagious disease."

Most operations with 100 to 500 cows probably will stay with milk replacer, mixing it and sending through the automatic calf feeder.

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