The first time we saw a milking robot in action was almost 5 years ago. We'd just moved back to the US and Iowa State Extension was hosting robotic milking farm tours. So 4 generations of Bolins headed out to learn about the newest thing in dairy farming - robots milking cows. A few days later, our milk hauler asked Dan & his dad, Dave, how likely it was that they'd put in robots. Their replies? Dave said 1% chance and Dan said only a 10% chance! Obviously, things changed.
Over the next year our opinion shifted as we learned more about the different management styles & routines that it takes to own & operate a robotic dairy farm. Eventually the dial shifted from a slim chance to a whole new way of thinking about designing a new barn, routines of life, and equipment needed, all based on having our cows milked by a robot. Dan visited a variety of farms with his dad, his grandpa, and his father-in-law. He saw a variety of types and brands of milking robots and eventually decided on the Astrea 20.20 from AMS Galaxy USA but really that's a post for another day.
Through seminars, books, tours, and talking with farmers, consultants, and dealers, we learned that robotic milking is so much more than not having to milk the cows yourself anymore. Robotic milking doesn't mean less work it just means our work is more flexible. We have more time to manage, focus, & care for our cows, we need less outside family labor(which can be hard to find), and as we've definitely learned, it makes life a whole lot more interesting!
Flexible & interesting... that's how we often describe robotic milking. In the past our cows were milked twice a day starting at 5am and 5pm or as close as possible to that time but now our cows can go get milked whenever they choose 24/7, which also means there can be problems 24/7. And when Rita has a problem, who does she call? Dan - whether it's a pleasant 10:30am call or a wake you from your deepest dreams call at 3:30am! Then again, Dan's parent's have had middle of the night calls from neighbors when the cows have gotten out, too.
And since the cows don't need us to get milked because Rita's helping them, when something comes up we can just go deal with it. And on a dairy farm somethings always coming up... heifers getting out, a visitor or two stopping by, calves jumping out their huts from low flying planes, a delivery of supplies, a calf being born, or a whole lot of other options. With a robot, the cows keep going to get milked even without us there to help them.
Flexibility also means we don't have to hire someone or change the cows routine to go to an evening activity. Dan's been able to enjoy coming with us to the School Carnival and going with Miss Muffet to the Father-Daughter Dance in the evenings. We would've had to have hired someone to milk the cows in the past! When Dan wanted to be in earlier than normal for longer than normal on Easter morning for a Sunrise Service, Easter Baskets, an egg hunt, and heading to church, he & his dad just fed the cows twice the day before giving them a little extra to make it through those morning hours he might typically be feeding. It was the same amount of work (and maybe a even a touch more) but it was flexible, meaning he could join us for a "normal" Easter morning (or at least what Pintrest & Facebook would have you to believe is normal!).
And it's interesting work... no day's quite the same. Of course manure needs scraping everyday and the cows need to be fed everyday but in between who knows what's going to happen! It seems someone's always stopping by - the cow's nutritionist, the veterinarian, an genetic/semen salesperson, a maintenance or repair person, another sales person, friends or family to see the new barn, and more!
And with lots of automated machines around there's also a lot of maintenance, well either that or repairs... and we try to do maintenance and minimize our surprise repairs! When you're dealing with repairs on robots interesting is a good way to describe it! For example, just the other night Dan got a middle of the night call from Rita because three cows in a row hadn't gotten milked quite right. Rita knew there was a problem and had called Dan but she didn't know exactly WHAT was wrong so Dan had to figure out that out.
At first glance everything seemed fine... all the parts were in tact and nothing was broken or cracked. Finally he observed that one of the milking cups & hoses didn't have any vacuum or suction, which is what helps milk the cow. After looking under Rita's hood he deduced that a cow must have kicked off the milking cup, which then landed in a cow pie sucking up manure instead of milk for the brief moment it laid there before Rita pulled it back to it's holding spot. Well manure isn't quite the same consistency as milk so it just got stuck and the suction stopped working. After 3 cows not getting milked Rita called Dan. Dan got it cleaned and fixed, got the cows back to being milked, and got himself back to bed. If someone had been there in a traditional milking parlor they may have seen the first cow kick it off and been able to figure it out right away. In robotic milking when you're not there sometimes it takes a bit more detective work.
By the way, in case you're concerned, all of the milk on our farm (and every other dairy farm!) goes through a milk filter (which we change 3 times a day) just for situations like this, ensuring that our milk stays purely milk! Plus it gets pasteurized at our coop's plant too!
When Rita calls with a problem, we have to fix it NOW. We don't have until the next milking time to get it done because although Rita milks the cows around the clock for us, we or the cows can't have her taking a break while she's broke down. That means we're always on-call or need to have someone else who is on-call, just in case.
And Rita's not the only one who keeps thing interesting! One evening we found Freddie the Feed Pusher jumped up onto a temporary panel/gate that had gotten knocked over. How he managed that we'll never know, but moving him involves getting the skidloader to lift him up. So at 10:30pm that night we got the skidloader and lifted him up & off so the cows would be able to get a midnight snack without us.
In the end are we glad our dial shifted to robotic milking? Yes! We have almost every meal together as a family, as Dan just puts his work aside and comes in for family meals. When the kids & I are trying to get off to school or another activity he'll pop in to help us get ready to go & out the door. We have the option to have evenings free or mornings free or whenever (the work just shifts elsewhere)! At 5pm we don't have to drop everything and head to the barn (although we might have to at 2:37am!). And it adds a little, well actually a lot, of spice to life... we wouldn't want life to get boring :)
PS... Do you know what song Rita sings us via Dan's phone whenever she needs "Help!"? What song would you pick?
Saving Dan's health and body is one reason we "hired" Rita the robot to milk our cows but it's far from the only reason.
It turns out Rita knows each of our cows really, really well... but then again she only knows them like Amazon, Facebook, and your FitBit knows you, by your data.
Dan and his parents have always known each of their cows well; they are able to pick out which one is which just by looking at them (I almost always have look at the ear tag to know!) and they know their individual personalities and quirks. When they were milking the cows, and therefore seeing them, twice a day everyday Dan could usually tell if a cow was feeling sick or if there was another problem based on how much milk she made or if something seemed off with her milk but now, with Rita's help, he knows even more!
It's often said, "You can only manage what you can measure", and while management certainly encompasses more than measuring things, measuring certainly helps. With Rita's help Dan has many more measurements that allow him to manage & care for our cows much better than before! So how does Rita do it?
First each cow is fitted with their own "FitBit" RFID (radio frequency identification) tag, which if you remember didn't work when we first started! When each cow comes into the milking box Rita identifies who she is and decides what to do next. Depending on how long it's been since the last time she's visited, Rita either starts milking her or kicks her out to come back and try again later (sometimes they just want some cow treat!).
Then Rita starts cleaning the cow's teats to get her ready to milk. Another anatomy lesson for you... a cow's udder actually has four separate compartments, or quarters as they are appropriately called, that each have their own teat for the milk to come out of. So after Rita cleans those four teats, she attaches a milking cup to each teat individually to start milking. The amazing thing is that Rita then measures the flow of the milk from each quarter so she knows when to take each milking unit off (movie below) as well as measuring how long a cow has been milking from each quarter. She can also measuring the conductivity which is an indication of if an infection (like mastitis) is starting in that quarter. If anything seems out of the norm (shorter than normal milking time, lower overall milk given, higher than normal conductivity), Rita alerts Dan and he makes sure to check on that cow. In the past Dan had a general idea of how much milk a cow was making because it went into glass measuring jars before being transferred to the main cooling tank but now he knows exactly and is able to catch a variety of problems before they begin!
Another thing that the RFID "FitBit" does is measures the cows activity level... how much time she's lying down, walking around, or standing still. Why would we want to know that? Well, about every 3 weeks a cow's activity skyrockets which means she's ready to get pregnant or is "in heat". We can often see their elevated activity visually but if we miss it, or don't know exactly when it started or ended, Rita lets Dan know, which means he can help the cows get pregnant with more accuracy.
Not only does Rita measure how much milk each cows gives, she also gives each cow an individualized portion of cow treat/feed to eat while she's milking. When the cow leaves the box Rita can tell how much she ate (based on weight), so if she doesn't eat enough Rita alerts Dan and he checks up on her in case she's getting sick (you don't like eating when you're sick, right?).
Now Rita gives us all this data & more but it's still up to Dan to take the time to look, analyze, and act on the information that Rita is giving him to make the best decisions for each cow... does she need to get milked again because Rita missed a teat? does she have a hurt foot or a tummy ache & that's why she hasn't come to get milked yet? does she need more to eat in the robot because she's making so much milk? is today the day to try & get her pregnant again? and on and on...
It's really quite amazing how much information and data there can be, and now-a-days in most every field there's plenty of data. Dan's aunt visited two weeks ago and loved looking at all the data that Rita gives us because in her job at the Post Office she dealt with lots of data too. Although at the Post Office, instead of how much milk a cow makes, her data was how many pieces of mail got delivered or lost, how fast they got to their destination, and more.
Dan's parents have used computer programs to track the health & well-being of their cows for decades and we still track many of those things with Rita and her accompanying software (family history, birth & health records, production timelines, and more). But now we have even more data helping us know with more accuracy how each cow is doing, meaning we can care for each of them even better!
How does information & data help you get your job done better?
P.S... Guess what? We've been sharing our dairy life with you for a whole year now! Hope you've enjoyed the journey as much as we have. Make sure to stick around because we're just getting started both in the barn and on the blog!
She's been hard at work for almost 3 months now doing the same thing over and over and over and over and... well, you get the idea.
And really that's the perfect job for a robot to do.
So why do we have Rita milking our cows? Let's take a little trip back in time to answer that question, shall we?
According to Dan's grandfather, 125 years ago when Dan's great-great-grandma wanted milk to feed her growing family she headed out with a pitcher in hand to their cow, that's right, one cow. Holding the pitcher in one hand she milked the cow with the other hand right into that pitcher and brought it in to be drank with dinner or churned into butter.
As the years went by, and the next generations came, a few more cows were born and eventually there was more milk than their family could drink and there were other families in the area who wanted that milk. So now instead of milking into the pitcher, they milked, still by hand, into metal milk cans. Typically they separated the cream from the skim milk right there on the farm. Then the hogs got the skim milk and the cream was picked up and hauled by horse & wagon to the local creamery to be made into butter. It turns out that it was actually Dan's great-great-grandfather Roy on the other side of his family tree that picked up cream from area farmers with his horses & cart (made into a sled in the winter) and brought it into the creamery.
As time continued to go by more and more families decided it wasn't practical for them to own and milk a cow but still wanted to give their family milky goodness. At the same time new technologies were being invented that allowed Dan's great-grandpa to milk more cows in a shorter amount of time, meaning he could provide more families with more milk!
Dan's grandfather, Neil, remembers when their first two automatic milking machines arrived sometime in the mid-1940's. He was a little boy and his dad, Adlai, was pretty skeptical. He made sure to keep the shipping crate around for awhile, "Just in case it doesn't work" as Neil remember's him saying. But work it did and our family hasn't looked back since. Twice a day Adlai moved those two milking machines from cow to cow until he'd milked all 17 cows, the number of stalls in the original barn. The milk still headed into metal milk cans and then was either picked up or taken to the local creamery.
Now for a little anatomy lesson... milk comes out of a cow's teats from their udder which happens to be located on the underside of their belly. What does that mean if you're milking a cow? Well Dan's great-great grandmother probably just bent over or squatted down for the few minutes it took her to get enough milk for her family but as more and more cows were being milked it mean more time bent over, squatting, or on your knees. And if you've ever spent much time bent over, squatted down, or on your knees it can take a toll on your body - especially if you're doing it over and over again twice a day every day. So technology continued to evolve...
As more and more people wanted to buy milk and dairy products at the store instead of milking a cow themselves everyday, Dan's dad, Dave realized he would need to milk even more cows making even more milk in a shorter amount of time ('cause we all only have 24 hours in a day!). So in 1979 he and Pam built a new barn and a milking parlor, the room the cows visited twice a day to get milked. The milking parlor had four milking units allowing four cows to be milked at one time and four more getting read to be milked on the other side.
The other advantage of the new parlor? Well, in the middle the floor was dug out lower, meaning no more bending, squatting, or kneeling to put the milking machine on the cows teats, leading to less back and knee problems. But Dan's parents and then Dan still had to prepare each cow to get milked and then put on and take off the milking unit of each cow, which meant rotating your arm in and out 3-4 times for 70 cows 2 times a day or over 450 times a day every day of the year. That's a lot the same repetitive motion often resulting in things like tennis elbow and contributing to arthritis.
And that's one of the reasons Rita the robot has joined the farm.
It turns out the Rita can do that repetitive motion of preparing the cows for milking and attaching the milkers over and over again without significant harm to herself and if she does "get sick" or break down we don't have to go to the doctor, prepare for weeks off after surgery, or try a variety of medications, we just fix her and get back milking the cows.
Now there's actually lots of other reasons too... Dan has more time to oversee and care for the cows instead of spending most of his time just milking them; Rita can give us more information about each cow and her well-being than we'd ever be able to know without her; she doesn't have attitude problems or forget to show up to work; the cows actually like the consistency of being milked the same way every single time and more but I think I'll cover those another day.
What parts of your job have been automated over the past 100 years?
Well, honestly, we'll probably stop counting the weeks pretty soon. Today marks 3 weeks since the cows moved into their new home - 3 very INTENSE weeks! We knew it was coming... we'd been told. But living through it is another matter!
I've been told that in disaster response there is 3 days of immediate, intense relief efforts, 3 weeks of continued relief efforts, 3 months of recovery efforts, and then 3 years of rebuilding. And I think in a lot of major changes, such as starting a new robotic dairy barn, this holds true as well.
3 days of ADRENALINE
3 weeks of INTENSITY
and we're moving on to
3 months of ADJUSTMENT and finally
3 years to NORMALCY!
On December 9th the cows literally followed Dan into the barn - if you haven't seen the movie, check it out! We had a great big crew of family, friends, & neighbors assembled who used their vehicles & bodies as fences to guide the cows into their new home!
And then the fun started... we got the first cow, Meramet, into the robot box. Dan's mom, Pam bought her great-great-great-great-great-great (you get the idea) grandma when she was in 5th grade and her cow family line has stayed in the family ever since. Dan's grandpa milked Meramet's ancestors and now he would be the first to milk her in the new barn!
But wait... it didn't read her leg band which gives out a radio frequency telling the robot who she is (important in robotic milking!). We'd done practice runs but now the time had come and it wasn't working... disappointment and scrambles abounded. We had to get it fixed because we sure weren't taking them back down to the old barn!
Thankfully we had great tech support from AMS Galaxy on the ground who had dealt with this before. After switching about everything imaginable on and off we found the problem... the well. If the well pump breaker was turned on the robot couldn't read which cow had just come in. So now we had a new problem because water's kind of important for drinking and cleaning and all sorts of other things.
Eventually we figured out it only needed to be off for the cow's first 10 seconds in the milking box to be read. So until we got it fixed a week and a half later (yes, a week and a half of phone calls, fix-it attempts, and parts ordered) we and all of our amazing help ran back and forth turning on and off the well pump breaker switch.
In the end Meramet didn't get to be the first cow milked, the importance of nostalgia slipped away so we could finally just get started!
Since then 3 weeks have flown by with Dan rarely leaving the barn (he has a bed in the upstairs walk-in closet), Christmas celebrated a bit differently than we imagined, support & help from wonderful family, friends, and neighbors, and cows that are starting to adjust. They say it takes humans 30 days to form a new habit and cows are no different. Eventually they should almost all decide to go get milked by themselves but for now each day a few more figure out they don't have to wait for Dan to come get them to get milked, they can just go!
There are more stories I could tell - how once we finally got everything figured out and were ready to milk a cow, Dan's Grandpa Pete leaned in to start getting the cow ready to be milked and with the bill of his hat hit the button that kicked her out of the milking box; how we've had lots friends & family stop by to check it out; how in the midst of frustration Dan erased the feed pushers route; how my mom showed up just in time for me to get violently sick for a day; how one of our little Jersey's was able to jump in (and then out) of the robot arm area in between the milking boxes; how we've had 3 heifers born in the new barn; how Secret Santas brought us treats & goodies; and how even though these last 3 weeks have been intense, we've had fun, been blessed, and are so thankful that after years of planning, preparing, and building we're actually milking cows!
Happy New Year!
Growing up a city-girl, after marrying my dairy farmer husband and spending a few years abroad, we came home to expand the family dairy farm and want to share our journey & farm life with you!