UNDERWOOD, Minn.—It's milking time all day long on Ardy Johanson's Underwood farm.
His cows can be milked at any time, up to six times a day, thanks to robotic milkers.
Johanson is the eighth Minnesota dairy farmer and first in Otter Tail County to install a robotic system.
He started using robotic milkers on Jan. 7 and can already see the benefits. Less human labor is required and the robotic system can track each cow's production, milking frequency, milk quality and activity.
His cows are still transitioning to the robotic milking style. He has a 110-cow herd with 95 milking, he said. About 75 percent of them have acclimated to the system and the remaining 10 to 12 cows need to be moved to the robotic milker for milkings. Once there, the cows know what to do. As they enter the robotic milker, pellets drop into a feeding chute. As the cows eat, the robotic arm washes the udder and places each cup on a teat. The cups automatically drop once the quarter is milked.
The robotic milker tests the milk for temperature, color and conductivity. If the conductivity reading is high, the machine will separate the milk and, when Johanson checks the machine's information, will know to treat the cow.
An RFID is attached to a collar worn by each cow. If the cow has already been milked, but enters the robotic milker, the head gate opens, releasing the cow back into the barn.
Cow activity is also tracked by the machine. Higher activity levels mean a cow is in heat.
Cows can be milked up to six times a day, but Johanson's herd is averaging 2.6 to 2.7 milkings per day. He expects to get an extra 4 to 5 pounds of milk per cow.
The milking system is different from the one Johanson used when he took over the farm from his father, Merle, in 1992. He milked 50 cows in a tie-stall barn. Johanson expanded in 2000 by adding a free-stall barn and double-eight parallel parlor and increased herd numbers.
Three workers took care of milking, feeding and farmwork, he said. Johanson, one full-time employee and Merle handled the workload. Now, with the robotic milkers, Johanson can handle feeding and milking himself. Although he doesn't physically milk the cows, Johanson washes the robotic milker and milk room and changes the filter twice a day. His father helps with fieldwork and other farm chores.
He's been interested in robotic milkers for some time, but says his interest peaked last summer as he looked for a lifestyle change. Johanson and his wife, Robin, have three sons ages 13, 10 and 8. He often missed baseball games and had little time to play catch with them.
And, as the town's assistant fire chief, he often missed fire calls because he was in the midst of milking. The robotic system offers him greater flexibility, he said.
Before he committed to the system, Johanson did his homework. He researched robotic milkers on the Internet and visited two Minnesota farms using robotics. Johanson chose the Lely brand and received a 90-plus page e-document detailing the cement work, electrical and space needs of the milker.
He was able to build a 40-foot by 50-foot addition to the free-stall barn. The building has two robotic milker rooms, one for each side of the free-stall barn plus one utility room, milk house, office and an entry with large picture window so visitors can view the robotic milker in action. Many people have stopped by to take a look.
The addition, robotics and bulk tank cost $450,000, which he plans to pay off in eight years. The $50,000 bulk tank was needed whether or not he went with robotics, he said. Money that would've gone toward a salary and benefits for a hired hand is in the project.
"If I had to do it over, considering the current milk prices, I'd still do it," Johanson said. "... I'm riding the storm right now like others who are milking with the prices we're getting ... If I knew last June that prices were going to be $9 in January, I would've still gone ahead with it. This is a long range investment."
He's been fielding many queries from farmers and has hosted several tours. His veterinarian offers an annual workshop. This year, Johanson's robotic milker was featured. Usually, 35 people attend, but this year there were more than 80, Johanson said.