Cashton dairy farmer Nick Mlsna knows he is making a big investment by installing the world’s first fully automated, per-stall robotic rotary milking parlor.
But Mlsna said when he made the decision to install the system earlier this year, he looked both to the past and the future as he considered what to do on his farm.
“To appreciate where you’re going you have to appreciate where you’ve been,” Mlsna said Aug. 20 during the groundbreaking ceremony on his farm. “To think of the future of our farm and then back to the past, I remember my dad telling stories of working the land with horses as a kid and my great-uncles talked about clearing the land. And now we’re going to robotic milking.
“If my grandpa would have known our cows would get milked robotically, that’s pretty overwhelming stuff.”
Mlsna’s East Town Dairy is installing a DairyProQ system from GEA Farm Technologies. The installation at the Mlsna farm will be the first in North America and the largest in the world.
Each of the 72 stalls on the rotary parlor will have its own robotic arm to completely automate the milking process. Pre-dipping, teat cup attachment, milk harvest and post-dipping are done in a single attachment. The unit is automatically removed and back-flushed between milkings to sanitize the clusters between cows.
The automated system will allow Mlsna to expand his dairy herd from 900 to 2,000 cows without hiring more employees, he said. He currently employs 21 people.
“We’re looking at the possibilities for (our
four children) and even our grandkids,” Mlsna said. “The consistency for the cows is also a big thing.”
Along with the new parlor, the Mlsna family is building a new 1,300-cow cross-ventilated 550-by-340-foot free-stall barn and a new calf barn with automated feeders. Calves are currently raised off the farm, but the plan is to return that function back to the home farm.
Matt Daley, GEA Farm Technologies chief executive officer, said the company has installed three robotic rotary parlors in Europe, but the Mlsna facilities will be the most automated and the largest.
“It’s a culmination of many years of research, many years of taking current robotic technology and making it applicable to larger farms,” Daley said. “Currently we sell robotic milking technology to small farms, just like some of our competitors do, but taking it to larger farms has always been more difficult.”
Mlsna and Daley were both hesitant to talk about how much the system would cost, although Daley said Mlsna is making an investment of “several million dollars” in the new facilities.
“The cost depends on the size of the farm and how many cows you want to milk,” Daley said. “It’s hard to pull out a per-stall number, but it’s less investment per stall than traditional robotic milking, by far.”
Most small-scale robotic systems cost between $180,000 and $200,000 per unit and can milk about 60 cows, according to dairy experts.
The Mlsna farm, located on the border of Monroe and Vernon counties, was founded by Nick’s great-great-grandfather in 1903. His four children represent the sixth generation on the farm.
Nick and his wife, LeAnne, farm with his parents, Dennis and Barbara Mlsna. Several other members of the Mlsna family are also involved in the operation.
The Mlsnas have a rolling herd average of 29,900 pounds of milk with 3.7 percent butterfat and 3.8 percent protein. Nick said he believes those numbers can be maintained or improved upon if the cows are kept comfortable in the new free-stall barn and milked in a consistent manner with the robotic system.
The family owns about 2,000 acres and rents more for harvesting feed and spreading manure, Mlsna said.
The 900 milking cows, 150 dry cows and 1,000 young stock are housed in four naturally ventilated free-stall barns on the Mlsna farm. Sand is reclaimed with a sand separator. The cows are milked three times a day in a double-12 parlor.
“The ultimate goal is cow comfort and doing what’s best for our cows,” Mlsna said.
Daley said the rotary robotic milking system is the culmination of many years of research by GEA engineers.
“We have three running in Germany right now and fourth and fifth units will be installed before the end of the year,” he said. “But this will be our largest one.”
The Mlsna farm is a good location for the U.S. installation because of its proximity to GEA’s research and development staff headquartered at nearby Galesville, Daley said.
Daley said robotic milking has taken off faster than most people envisioned it would — in Ontario, Canada, 60 to 70 percent of all dairy farms being built are using robotics.
“Ten years from now we will see a lot of these, on both bigger farms and smaller farms,” Daley said. “We have many different sizes for different farm sizes. You can imagine a 28-stall parlor on a medium-sized dairy or we could go larger than the 72-stall parlor we are installing here.
“The goal is to eliminate labor, become more efficient and still produce quality milk.”
The local GEA dealer is Advanced Dairy Solutions in Richland Center. Larry Ferguson, the company’s owner, described the project as “an opportunity of a lifetime.”
“I got into this business working for a (dairy equipment) dealership in 1979,” he said. “At that time we used to go out and put in step-savers and 2-inch vacuum lines. Those were a big deal and pipelines were huge automation.
“Now it’s unbelievable where this has taken us. Technology changes the game.”
Various versions of the DairyProQ system will be available in the future, Ferguson said, with different levels of automation and styles of parlors.
GEA has lagged behind its competitors in terms of small-scale robotic systems, with Lely and DeLaval among the leaders in the U.S. But all of the companies were struggling with a way to bring robotic technology to larger farms, Ferguson said.
“There’s not a robotic system out there for a big farm yet — this is it,” he said. “This is the first truly commercial application of automation in the world right here.
“The box systems are very good for the small farmer, but not for guys who want to milk 3,000 cows someday. That’s not going to get it done.”
Ferguson said the goal is to have the system up and running in April 2015.
Ferguson said he worked on the second installation in Germany to get his training to tackle the Mlsna project.
“It’s like a dream come true, basically,” he said.
Source: The Country Today-Jim Massey