from AGWEB: Dairy Technologies Dizzying Choices

Jim Dickrell, editor of Dairy Todayattended the 2015 Precision Dairy Conference, held in Rochester, Minn. June 24 and 25. He talks about dairy technology he saw or heard about which included Chad Kieffer of Utica, Minn., a dairy producer who says high milk production (100 lb./cow/day), high throughput and good milk quality all can be achieved with robotic milking. Kieffer is a part owner of his family’s 300-cow dairy that has a rolling herd average of 29,000 lb. The Kieffer’s milk with five Lely robots.

Read below or the entire article here.

by Jim Dickrell

If you’ve ever gone to buy a new cell phone, the choice of phones, options, apps and calling plans can make your head hurt within minutes of entering any store.

That mind numbing exercise, which I endure every few years with as much enthusiasm as a root canal, gives just a glimpse of what dairy farmers are up against as they search, compare and price new technologies for their farms.

The 2015 Precision Dairy Conference, held in Rochester, Minn. June 24 and 25, was a good reminder of that. The Conference, organized by the University of Minnesota and the University of Kentucky, had about 40 sponsors and venders, displaying products ranging from cow activity monitors to robotic milkers to individual cow methane detectors.

Ten dairy farmers spoke, sharing what they’ve learned as they’ve adopted these new technologies. Since these producer presentations were sponsored by companies whose products the farmers were using, it’s a safe bet the farms were the very best at adopting that particular tech product. Nonetheless, it’s clear these products have moved beyond prototypes and first users to mainstream application:

  • Tony Louters, Merced, Calif. was having difficulty with his transition cows. Too many cows were calving early, and 25% to 30% had retained placentas (RPs). Early culling of these cows was occurring much too frequently. Louters started fitting his cows with SCR Heatime activity/rumination monitors a year ago. By last December, he had monitors on every cow. He soon noticed that rumination activity dropped each time he vaccinated. Cows returned to normal rumination within a day or so. But that suggested vaccinating cows three weeks before calving (and moving them into the pre-fresh pen at the same time) might be a problem. He now vaccinates cows four weeks before calving, waits a week and then moves them to the pre-fresh group. RPs have dropped to 5%, and early culling is below 5%.
  • Chad Kieffer, Utica, Minn., says high milk production (100 lb./cow/day), high throughput and good milk quality all can be achieved with robotic milking. Kieffer is a part owner of his family’s 300-cow dairy that has a rolling herd average of 29,000 lb. The Kieffer’s milk with five Lely robots. Nutrition is key. “Cows go to the robot to eat,” he says. Kieffer, who is also a nutrition consultant, says he balances the partially-mixed rations for at least 15 lb. of grain below the bulk tank average. That keeps cows hungry and eager to visit the robot. He’s also encouraging high producing robot herds to offer two (or more) types of energy pellet through the robot to target different stages of lactation.

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  • Sander Penterman, Thorp, Wis., told vendors he would use activity/rumination monitors on cows if he could reduce reproductive hormone use by half and have the same or better pregnancy rate. Penterman emigrated from the Netherlands in 1999, started his own dairy three years later and now milks 850 cows with his wife and eight employees. He installed AGIS CowManager SensOor ear tags and software three years ago. The software provides optimal time to breed alerts, and has more than delivered on Penterman’s original goals. His heat detection rate has jumped to 60% (up from 50%), preg rates have climbed to 24% (from 22%) and calving interval has fallen to 390 days (from 410). Hormone injections have fallen 90%.  

What these examples tell me is that the right technology in the right hands works. Unfortunately, there’s still that deer-in-the-headlights look when sorting through all these options.

Jeff Bewley, an Extension dairy specialist, says you should approach buying dairy technology much like you’d buy your next cell phone. He’s come up with a check list of six questions (read them here) to ask before signing that purchase order. The list won’t make your selection task easy, but it is a place to start.

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Happy Canada Day from Lely North America!


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Robotic Revolution: The Latest in Milking Technology

Richard Banks with, wrote about Todd and Murray Schnarr of Alma, Ontario, who have converted to Lely automatic milking systems in order to save on labor costs. Read an excerpt of the article below or the entire article and video here.

MurrayAndToddSchnarr0215_schnarrH-300x188It’s just one of those talks that you have while you’re milking the cows,” says Todd Schnarr. “You know, ‘What do you want to do next?,’” he recalls asking his dad and business partner. “‘Where do you think we’re going?’ As soon as a piece of cows busts off a piece of stabling, it gets you thinking a bit about, well, how long’s this barn going to last and stuff like that.”

The exchange got both Todd and his dad, Murray, talking about things they’d been thinking for some time. To survive in the dairy business, they knew they needed to make adjustments. Not that they were strangers to change, however. For instance, slightly more than a decade before, Murray had asked his son to join the business, and the two Schnarrs doubled the size of their dairy to accommodate 98 cows.

But the changes the two dairymen began to discuss this time around were more revolutionary than evolutionary. More transformational than just a revision of the current model.

At the time, the Schnarrs, who live and work near Alma, Ontario, were working out of a tie-stall barn, and, says Murray, “I’d been milking cows for 40 years and [my knees] just wore out. Last eight or 10 years I had to use a stool just because I couldn’t get up and down as well anymore. I had to do something different.”

In addition, he says, “We were just way too overcrowded. We had to get these cattle moved into an area where they had a lot more freedom, a lot more space and a lot more cow comfort.”

After attending an open house at a neighboring dairy, the Schnarrs found what they hoped would be a solution consisting of two main parts, each working hand in hand with the other. One was a compost-pack barn that would give the cows the freedom to move about inside, which, in turn, would allow them to essentially milk themselves at the second part of this equation: a robotic milking system.

Pioneered in Europe some 20 years ago, significant numbers of dairies in Canada, and more recently the U.S., have begun installing robotics, also referred to as automatic milking systems (AMS). At a cost under $200,000 for a basic AMS, dairy owners hope the payoff will come relatively quickly, mainly in the form of increased yields and lower labor costs.

Todd Schnarr can access a vast array of data on the robotic milker’s monitor, as well as on a computer in his office and his smart phone.

The robotic system the Schnarrs purchased, which includes two milkers, a central pumping and processing unit, feed pusher and calf feeder, cost them about $400,000. Even with a total cost of $1.7 million, including construction of the new compost pack barn, Murray and Todd hope the system will pay for itself in six to seven years from time of completion.

“Reduction of labor cost is basically why we put the system in,” says Todd. He notes, however, that another plus of using less outside labor is that it’s often undependable. “Finding somebody who wants to sweat or wants to do the work, or just show up on time … basically, [it’s difficult to] find reliable hired help.”

As for yield, the road to a promised increase included a fairly steep—albeit, not unexpected—learning curve. It was July 2, 2014, when, says Murray, “we started to teach cows from a tie-stall barn how to work with a robot barn.”

“And then the next few weeks were, I guess you could say, hard,” says Todd. “Very, very hard. We pretty much were out here, I’d say, at least 20 hours a day … in the barn pushing cows and training.”

The first two months in the new facility were made all the more difficult because it was the busiest time of the year for the Schnarrs’ custom hay operation. They were trying to cut and bale hay in what is typically a tight window for such work.

“In the transition period … we went from shipping probably close to 30 to 31 liters per cow per day to, like, 15 to 18,” Todd says. “It was like holy moly. We were anticipating [the yield] to drop. We didn’t think it would be quite that bad.” In two to three weeks, however, the cows “were back in the ballpark of where they needed to be. And then they’ve just steadily gone up from there.”

As of this spring, the Schnarrs’ cows were up to 34 liters per day, and they expect the increases to continue, in large part because the cows can milk themselves when they’re ready, not at times set by their dairy operators. For instance, in the Schnarrs’ old barn, the cows were milked twice a day. The 115 cows in the new setup now visit the robotic milkers an average of 2.6 to 2.7 times per day.

Read the complete article and video here.

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The Cost of Feeding Robots

Laura Martin, M.Sc, a dairy nutritionist with Kenpal Farm Products in Centralia, wrote this article that appeared in the Western Dairy Farmer in May 2015. Here is an excerpt. 

As more and more farms change from conventional milking to automatic milking systems some important nutrition decisions also need to be made. Adjustments need to be made to the TMR at the bunk and a quality robot pellet needs to be fed while the cows are being milked. Many producers are concerned that these nutrition changes will increase feed costs and consider them to be a serious drawback to robotic milking; but does it actually cost more to feed these herds?

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With free flow robot traffic, which is used by the majority of robot farms in Ontario, changes need to be made at the bunk so that cows have more motivation to go into the robot. Since this mix is no longer the total ration for the cows the new term is PMR, or partially mixed ration. The general rule is to balance the nutrition in this PMR for about 5 – 7 litres less production than the herd’s average production. So if the herd is averaging 35 L then the PMR will be balanced for 28 – 30 L. By reducing the production expectation of the PMR the dry matter intake, energy and total protein of the mix is lowered. This prompts the cows to go looking for more, which they will find in the robot. Forage moistures in the PMR need to be closely monitored.

If the forages get drier then the PMR will contain more dry matter and may reduce robot visits. The fibre in the PMR also needs to be high enough to support butterfat production in the high producing cows that are receiving a lot of robot pellet. This robot pellet contains the missing nutrition from the PMR and is designed to be fed at different feeding rates depending on production.

The robot pellet is vital to the nutrition program for a robot farm. It not only has to replace the nutrition that has been removed from the PMR it needs to entice the cows to enter the robot.

A good quality pellet can make all the difference when it comes to not having to fetch cows. Palatable ingredients are important. Cows have a sweet tooth so sweet ingredients like molasses and flavours can attract cows to the robot and keep them coming back for more.

Unpalatable ingredients like minerals should be kept to a minimum. Providing readily available sources of starch are important. Cows will be looking for the energy they are missing in the PMR so it is important to provide it in the robot pellet.  By providing energy in the pellet, cows can be fed to production with higher producing cows getting more pellets and therefore more nutrition to support that production. The pellet itself needs to be quite hard. It has to arrive in the robot feeder with minimal fines so that the cows can eat it as they milk.  ….


On a 60 cow herd an increase of 15% in milk allows for 8 cows to be sold to keep the same amount of litres in the tank. With only 52 cows needing to be fed rather than 60 cows the savings add up to almost $10 a day or over $3,000 a year on feed costs for the herd. Of course if you don’t get an increase in milk on the robots then the feed is going to cost more.

More than just the milking routine needs to change with robots, there are big changes to the nutrition program as well. Changes are required at the feed bunk that help reduce diet costs and increase visits to the robot. Quality robot pellets are worth the cost if they encourage the cows to return to the robot and support the increased production. So while it may seem like a feeding program for a robotic milking herd may cost more, if you get more milk and can sell cows and therefore feed less cows that can more than make up for the added expense.

To read the entire article, see the May 2015 issue of Western Dairy Farmer.


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#WordlessWednesday – Lely Juno in action

Lely Juno getting the job done! photo by Jennifer Carrico


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Ben Smink, Lely FMS Senior Consultant, to Present at Precision Dairy Conference

SMINK_BEN_1Ben Smink, Lely Farm Management Support Senior Consultant, will present Robotic Milking Systems Data Analysis: Factors Associated with Increased Production per Cow per Day and Production per Robot per Day on Thursday June 25 at 8:15 a.m. at the Precision Dairy Farming Conference and Expo at the Mayo Civic Center, 30 Civic Center Drive SE, Rochester, Minn. LelyVectorMayLely North America is a sponsor and will have a display at the conference that is co-hosted by the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and the University of Minnesota.

Smink, Lely FMS Senior Consultant, leads the Lely North America Farm Management Support (FMS) team which includes trained Senior Robot Advisors and experts in areas of feed nutrition, veterinary medicine and more. In its aim for continuous improvements, Lely has established the FMS group to raise the quality of management advice given to its dairy farmer customers. The Lely NA FMS team covers territories across North America.

“Our goal is to provide the latest information on robotic dairy farm management and know how so dairy producers can use that knowledge in practice,” Smink says.

Plan to hear Smink’s great information at the Precision Dairy Farming Conference. If you’d like to expand your #LelyKnowHow, contact a member of Lely’s FMS team or following them on twitter at @LelyFMSNA.


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Lely sponsors Precision Dairy Farming Conference this week

Dec30Number5Lely North America is proud to sponsor and take part in the Precision Dairy Farming Conference and Expo this week, June 24 & 25 at the Mayo Civic Center, 30 Civic Center Drive SE, Rochester, Minn.

The University of Kentucky College of Agriculture, Food and Environment and the University of Minnesota are co-sponsoring the second U.S. Precision Dairy Conference. The program includes diverse precision dairy topics with an update on experiences and developments from Europe from Henk Hogeveen from Wageningen and Utrecht universities, Netherlands. UK Ag dairy professor Jeffrey Bewley will lead a session on making sense of cow sensors. University of Minnesota’s Marcia Endres will talk about factors that influence success in robotic milking and automated calf feeder systems.


Industry-sponsored sessions include information management, precision feeding, and more. Ben Smink, Lely FMS Senior Consultant, will discuss factors associated with increased production per cow per day, and production per robot per day for robotic milking.

In addition, 10 dairy producers from California, Illinois, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, and Wisconsin, as well as Ontario, Canada, will share their experiences with precision technologies. The conference gives attendees an opportunity to visit these farms virtually and learn from users of cow sensors, inline milk sensors, robotic milking systems, automated calf feeders, automated TMR (total mixed ration) feeding systems, and smart barns.

Program details are available online,

A trade show will be open June 24-25, where participants can visit with industry experts and learn more about various products and technologies available today and coming in the near future. Sponsors and exhibitors include Platinum sponsors Lely and other companies as well as media sponsor Dairy Herd Management.

The event ends at 11:15 a.m. on Thursday, June 25, so participants can also attend day two of the 2015 Hay and Forage Expo held at Hernke’s Dairy in Cannon Falls, 40 minutes north of Rochester.

Register online at

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June Dairy Month Special: Robotics in Dairy Farms

DairyMonthA 2015 June Dairy Month special on WFRV-TV hosted by Ag Reporter Mike Austin discusses advances in technology including Lely robotic milking at Wichman Farms.

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Happy cows live at a robotic dairy

Jennifer Carrico with High Plains Journal has featured Brad and Monica Nussbaum of South Dakota who built a dairy barn with two Lely robots.  Read an excerpt below from the feature or read the entire article here.


Using robots sounds like something out of an episode of “The Jetsons,” but it’s reality for dairy producers around the world.

Brad and Monica Nussbaum of Garretson, South Dakota, knew they needed to make changes to their dairy, and after considering many options, they decided to build a barn equipped with two robot milkers and a robot to push feed up for the cows.

They decided this would be the perfect fit for the family farm run by Brad, Monica and their two daughters, Stephanie and Brittany.

“We visited all kinds of dairies and decided this was our best option,” said Monica. “Our daughter, Brittany, had toured several robot barns in Europe and thought they would work for us. We wanted it to be a one-man or woman barn, since there’s three of us women working here.”

Once they decided to build a barn with robot milking, they had to look at every detail, which included where to build the barn.

“We wanted to make sure we had the barn in the right spot to ensure the air would move through it and our cows would be comfortable,” said Brad.

Monica explained how she, Brad, Stephanie and Brittany were each given a wind spinner to find where the best air movement was in the area where they planned to put the barn. It ended up that where they all stopped is now the four corners of the barn.

“I’m sure building engineers wouldn’t have done it the way we did, but we are definitely pleased with the results,” said Monica. “And the cows are too.”

The construction of the barn wasn’t completed quite as quickly as they had hoped, which resulted in more movement of cows at first, but now the cows are in comfort in the barn that includes waterbed stalls.

The Nussbaums started milking their 145 cows in March 2014. Prior to having the robots they milked about 90 cows in a stall barn.

“When we decided to build this barn, we ramped up our herd by purchasing some heifers and breeding cows to female semen,” said Brad.

The barn has a slatted floor and sets on a cement pit. When the pit is emptied, the manure is used for fertilizer on their crop ground. Brad said the quality of the manure fertilizer is better than if they would have built a lagoon because none of the manure soaks into the ground since it’s in a cement pit.

Read the full feature in the June 15 issue of High Plains Journal.

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#WordlessWednesday – Lely FMSNA #LelyKnowHow

The Lely North America Farm Management Support (FMS) team includes trained Senior Robot Advisors and experts in areas of feed nutrition, veterinary medicine and more. In its aim for continuous improvements, Lely has established the FMS group to raise the quality of management advice given to its dairy farmer customers.

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