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Superior Dairy Showcases Robot Technology

by Kim MacMillan

Published: Friday, June 15, 2018

Imagine the Star Wars droids R2-D2 and C-3PO putting their many technical skills to good use on a family dairy farm in northeastern Indiana. Hollywood fiction? Not at all. At least five robots call Superior Dairy Farm in rural Garrett home—four robotic milking machines and a barn aisle sweeper called Juno, which resembles an iRobot Roomba as it pushes feed back into place so that the cows can reach it as they lean through the stanchions for a meal.

As part of the June National Dairy Month celebration, the public was invited by American Dairy Assn. Indiana Inc. to tour Superior Dairy last Saturday. The tour guides shared how technology on the farm benefits the animals, the farm staff and the consumer. But, the open house was about more than technology; it also showcased the people who raise and care for the livestock and explained how milk is safely and efficiently produced.

"Our mission is to promote the sale and consumption of cow's milk on the behalf of Indiana's nearly 1,000 dairy farm families," explained Deb Osza, CEO of American Dairy Assn. Indiana. "June Dairy Month is a celebration that was started back in the late '30s and early '40s in order to honor dairy farms. So, we do this type of farm tour in June Dairy Month to connect people with farming, because many of us don't get a chance to come out to a dairy farm. We've been working with the wonderful Haynes family. They opened their farm to allow people to come to see the farm. I say to people, 'Drink milk with every meal because it's good for you and when you do that toast the dairy farmers who are providing it for you.' Milk is very nutritious, it is produced locally and it's always in season."

Superior Dairy is owned and operated by the Haynes family, who are now in the fifth generation working on the same farm. Two brothers and their wives (David and Debra Haynes and Tim and Amanda Haynes), and two of their sons and a daughter-in-law (David and Debra's son Ryan and his wife Lindsay, and Tim and Amanda's son Tyler) are partners and share the work on the livestock and grain farm.

According to Debra Haynes, besides the 241-cow dairy operation the family also farms between 1,800 to 2,000 acres in alfalfa, wheat, corn and soybeans and operates a 300-head farrow-to-finish hog facility. The family owns four farmsteads. Milk from their farm goes to multiple processing plants including Schenkel's, Prairie Farms, Dean's and others.

Their dairy operation includes: the new freestall barn with milking parlors which was finished in February 2017; another farm where the dry cows are bred, gestate and calve; lots for growing heifers (some are put back into the farm herd and some are sold), and a facility for finishing the dairy beef steers.

Nearly 1,000 visitors flowed through the guided farm tours and the sponsored lunch tent during the four-hour open house. As one might expect, the lunch featured dairy products including cheese on Domino's pizza, white and chocolate milk, yogurt, string cheese, cream-filled chocolate cake bars and soft-serve ice cream. For part of the farm tour day country radio station K105 was on site playing tunes and offering a prize drawing and games.

Visitors were organized into small tour groups and were shepherded by members of the Haynes family through the barn. Tour stops in the freestall barn showcased features including the barn aisle scraper cleaning system, the sand-filled resting stalls, feeding stanchions and "Juno" the Lely robot feed sweeper, automatic waterers, Lely cow brush grooming stations, four Lely-brand robotic milking parlors (two in each half of the barn), and barn environmental controls such as computer-controlled fans and sprinklers for evaporative cooling, and barn side drapes that open and close automatically according to the weather conditions.

Additional tour stops featured the bulk tank milk storage room, the upstairs observation room that overlooks the barn, slides showing data that the computer system provides to farmers, a visit with the Kaeb company representative, Shawn Reinhard, and talks from dairy nutritionist Doug Metzger and veterinarian Kyle Yarde.

The cows can move at will throughout the freestall barn to eat, drink, rest, groom, exercise and socialize as they wish. The computer monitored system in the barn involves the cows wearing numbered collars with RFID chips. Through this system each cow's daily activities—eating and ruminating (chewing their cud), moving, resting, drinking, the number of times they move through the milking parlor, pounds of milk produced, and other vital statistics, can be tracked.

Though the cows can cycle through the milking parlor at will, the computer will only allow the milking robot to milk them up to six times per day. The system is designed for cow comfort and health management as well as efficient usage of the robotic milkers. It provides massive amounts of data to the farmer.

Metzger showed the tour group the types of feedstuffs included in the balanced daily ration for the Superior Dairy cows to help them stay healthy, produce a high volume of high-quality milk and to have the energy and nutrients to carry and produce a healthy calf. He explained that the cost of the ration is also very important; providing a good quality ration at the most economical cost is the challenge. He said that the cows consume about 105 pounds of feed per day. The ration ingredients included haylage (high-moisture baled hay sealed in plastic), corn silage, ground shelled corn, soybean meal and a vitamin-mineral premix.

He also explained that when the cows go into the milking parlor they get a pelleted feed as a special treat. The pellets provide additional energy and are also designed to be very tasty with extra sugar and a berry flavor incorporated into the pellets. The pelleted feed is allotted to each cow in an amount determined by the computer. The higher producing cows get more because they need more energy to help them continue to produce the high volume of milk.

Yarde, who talked about dairy herd health management and breeding and calving dairy cows during his tour stop, admitted that he and the farm owners had to learn how to use the information the system provided when it was first installed.

"When we first started we were getting more information than we knew what to do with. My phone was ringing multiple times a day from Tyler and other people saying, 'This cow is doing this and this cow is doing this.' I was like, 'OK, so we have a lot of good information, but we don't need to read all of it. So, we have to figure out what to do with it.' Now we know what are the makers we need to pay attention to. The system provides a lot of really good information, really cool technology. A lot of the information provided by the computers is used to monitor cow health and we can know the same day if something is causing the cow to be sick. But the information also helps the nutritionist and the farmer by indicating how many pounds of feed the cow consumes per day and how many pounds of milk the cow is producing."

According to both Yarde and farm partner and tour guide Tyler Haynes, sick cows can be detected a few days earlier than in a conventional farming operation because the computer system notes within a few hours when the cows go off feed, are less active and their milk production drops indicating that the cow may be under the weather. Increased activity and less rumination (a sign that the computer tracks to indicate that the cow is eating less) are also signs that a cow may be coming into heat and needs to be bred; these are also noted in the computer stats more quickly than might be noticed by casual observation.

After the tour, participants were asked by ADA Indiana to fill out a questionnaire about what they learned and to give comments about the open house. Comments from the adults taking the tour were all quite positive and they appreciated the opportunity to be able to bring their families to see a working farm and sample dairy products. ADA producer relations representative Jackie Barber said that some of the recurring and fun comments noted by children who toured Superior Dairy and had a chance to interact with the cows were: "The cows were so friendly! Their tongues were scratchy."

The technology of the dairy farm management computerized system and robotic milking has many advantages. Improved herd health and breeding management, more immediate tracking and reporting of production data and costs, and reduced hands-on labor needs. Another somewhat hidden advantage for dairy farmers using this new system is that they can get away to run errands and do other farming chores, such as planting and harvesting crops or making hay, more easily. And, with a little less planning than with the older systems, they can actually take a vacation more easily than when they were hand milking or milking with conventional milking machines.

Technology doesn't completely eliminate the need for human management of the farm however. The Superior Farm cows had to learn how to cycle through and be comfortable with the robotic milking system.

"When we first started with the new system a little over a year ago, there was a learning curve for us and a learning curve for the cows," said Tyler Haynes.

Shawn Reinhard, the Kaeb Sales representative who helped the Haynes family install the Lely robotic system, said that many times the new first-calf heifers learned the system more quickly than the older cows, because they hadn't been milked the old way first. And, even now with the new system there are a few cows that are termed "fetch cows" that have to be herded through the robotic milking parlor on a daily basis to make sure that they are milked regularly. But, the computer tells the Superior Dairy staff which cows need to be fetched and they tend to be the same cows each day, so the staff knows them by sight so a combination of technology and the human factor gets the job done.

Yet, Tyler said although he really loves many things about the new system he does sometimes miss the old hands-on approach to dairy farming,

"Personally I still miss it (the old system) sometimes; every now and then. I miss being in there with the cows and hooking them up. It was repetition. You know what you are doing and it gave you time to think. So, when I was doing that, if there was anything about the day that frustrated me it gave me time to think and work it out."

And, since he is the one who is called by the computer system if anything goes wrong, Tyler said he can get a call at any time of the day or night.

"I'm on call nearly all of the time, since I don't have a young family like my cousin Ryan does, but I don't mind. You never know. Sometimes I get a couple of calls in the middle of the night. Sometimes I swear that it waits until after midnight to call me," he smiled.

Another important piece of equipment for a new technology-run dairy is a generator. Without electric power computers, robots, fans and other key equipment won't function. Superior Dairy has a back-up generator big enough to run two barns like their new freestall barns.

Jenni Browning, ADA Indiana communications director, said that the June Dairy Month farm tours will continue next year and, if possible, they will probably feature a southern Indiana farm next since the last two years have been hosted by northern Indiana farms.

She and Barber said if anyone wants to see other dairy farms in action there are three options in Northern Indiana: Fair Oaks Farm Dairy Adventure in Fair Oaks, Ind., which is open year-round; Kuehnert Dairy in Fort Wayne, which has a fall festival; and Knollbrook Farm in Goshen, which has a fall festival.

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