The new robotic milking system at Iowa’s Dairy Center continues the philosophy that existed when the facility was built in 2000.
“The Northeast Iowa Dairy Foundation and Northeast Iowa Community College thoroughly embrace education and technology,” said Megan Kregel, Dairy Center coordinator. “We took every step possible when the center was first built to showcase every type of technology we could, and adding the robots is one more step in the process. It’s our duty, almost, to provide such things for students and producers and consumers to view and have some experience with.”
NICC and the Dairy Foundation will host a Dairy Barn Open House on March 27 to show its new $1.7-million robotic milking system and barn renovations.
The Dairy Center, just south of NICC’s Calmar campus, began milking with two new Lely Astronaut A4 robots on Dec. 10.
“We were thrilled with how start-up went,” Kregel said. “The Lely and Fitzgerald reps said it was one of the easiest start-ups they’ve seen. We had a crew of really good people here, and the students took a hands-on approach in pushing cows. It was a very easy process.”
They followed a pre-feeding schedule for several days before start-up, so the cows were used to eating the protein pellets in the robotic stalls. For a week before start-up, the ration was top-dressed with the pellets.
“It’s a molasses coated protein pellet,” Kregel said. “We like to say that the cows eat their candy bar in the robot, and their salad at the bunk.”
Because the Dairy Center was short a herdsperson in December and January, Kregel filled the role. She selected the cows that would go on the robots.
One robot milks 60 Registered Jerseys and the other milks 60 Registered Holsteins. The remaining 140 cows will continue to be milked in the double-eight, side-by-side, parallel and herringbone parlor. The herd will grow to 300 cows by summer.
The Dairy Center purchased 49 Jerseys from Iowa herds to fill out the Jersey pen.
“We’ve always had really calm and tame cows because they see people all the time,” Kregel said. “What we notice in the robot pens is how calming it is if you let cows be on their own and make their own schedule.”
Fitzgerald Inc., of Elkader, was awarded the bid for the Lely robots. Brickl Brothers designed the barn addition, and Heying Lumber, of Calmar, and Superior Building Center, of Monona, were general contractors. Construction started April 15. The addition consists of the robotic milking center with a viewing area and a conference room that has windows to the free-stall barn and milking center. The free-stall barn was expanded and converted to tunnel ventilation. All stalls are sand bedded with the exception of stalls that have a slatted floor. There are automatic back brushes throughout the barn, and a Lely Juno automatically pushes up feed 10 times per day.
The viewing area in the robotic center is open 24 hours per day. A grant from Silos and Smokestacks provided five barn cameras so visitors can watch the cows on a big screen in the robotic center.
Lead herdsperson Jeremy Walz started Jan. 27. Chris Mack is the evening herdsperson and will be in charge of 10 Angus-Simmental cross cows that will arrive in June for NICC’s new beef science program. Both agree that things are going well.
“I was pleasantly surprised at how well the cows were going through the robots when I got here,” Walz said. “The sand bedding is making a big difference for all the cows.The cows are cleaner and more comfortable.”
Big improvements in services per conception have occurred with cows settling easier in the robot herd, Kregel said. Somatic cell count is down to 110,000 and one day it was 86,000 in the tank, the lowest in the farm’s history. Because cows already were being milked three times per day in the parlor, the staff didn’t expect to see a production increase, but it has been up since they started on the robots.
“Our Jerseys, which are mostly two-year-olds, are averaging 60 (pounds of milk) and our Holsteins 90 (pounds),” Kregel said.
“Robotic systems are tailor-made for the Midwest and will allow us to compete with the dairies that are able to milk around the clock,” said Dave Lawstuen, NICC dairy science instructor and chair of dairy operations. “The robots give us the ability to spend our time managing. The dairy science program’s motto is we’re training tomorrow’s dairy professionals. This new technology gives us one more tool to get these students prepared to be the future business owners or managers of dairies.”
Lawstuen is amazed at how quickly his students grasp information and technology.