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Homestead Wins Innovation Title

by Anna-Lisa Laca

Published: Friday, January 15, 2021

The following is being reprinted with permission from Dairy Herd Management.

On any given day at Homestead Dairy in Plymouth, you'll find cows interacting with robots on a dairy homesteaded in the early 1900s. When most people think about cows and robots, milking robots come to mind, and while Homestead is one of the largest robotic dairies in the country, their use of technology on all three of their dairies goes way beyond that.

Many farms use innovative technology, but few have made so many different kinds work together on their farms to achieve such productivity, sustainability and high quality of life for their cows and employees. That's why the International Dairy Foods Assn. and Dairy Herd Management chose Homestead Dairy as the 2021 Innovative Dairy Farmers of the Year.

Brian and Jill Houin, along with 14 family members and more than 30 non-family employees, employ robotic milking systems, automatic calf feeders, methane digestion and more, all while sharing their farming journey with their community and customers.

Feeding Calves with Robots

In 2015, the Houins decided to try to use automatic calf feeders on their farm. Brian Houin says it's a technology he was the most scared to implement.

"I had the mindset of wanting to keep the animals separate as long as you can to get the immune system going before you introduce them into a group," he explains. "But once we started, it was just like mind blowing that it's not an issue, and the calves do so much better early on with the auto feeders, and they wean better than individual hutches, too."

The group living for calves starts on day one. Calves are trained by patient employees who carefully walk them to the feeder and teach them how to eat on the feeder all by themselves. It takes most calves about three days to figure out the process. For those calves that need some extra time to figure it out, the employees find them and help teach them a few days longer.

According to Allie Rieth, of the American Dairy Assn. of Indiana, who nominated Homestead Dairy for this award, correlation has been found between calves' ability to learn how to drink from the automatic feeders and their use of the robotic milkers later in life. There is further research using genomics to see if this can be tied to a genetic trait during breeding selection.

Houin says the obvious challenge to using automatic feeders is keeping things clean and ensuring proper milk quality for each calf. The biggest challenge the automatic feeders present, however, is the incidence of injuries in calves as they run and play with each other in mob housing.

"It's the most frustrating because you think it should be preventable, but when the calves are happy and healthy and (they're)running around. They're babies, and they're not the most agile, so they run into things and fall down," he explains. "It's not a huge number of them, our culling and death rate is as low as it's ever been, but just the fact that our biggest challenge is not scours or pneumonia, it's injury."

Homestead Dairy hosts tours for thousands of consumers each year and Houin says it seems the calf feeders and group housing make tours feel more intimate.

Technology Use

Another important technological advancement the Houins use on their farm is genomic testing. They've been using the Zoetis Dairy Wellness profit dollars as their index for several years now, something they say is paying off in spades. They recently also partnered with Select Sires on their embryo program and had their first bull get released to a stud a few weeks ago.

"Granted it doesn't mean anything other than it's got our name on it, but it was still a cool experience," Houin says.

The Lely robots at Homestead Dairy collect an abundance of data that is used along with genomic testing data to aid heifer culling decisions and speed up genetic gain. CowManager sensors have been added to the breeding heifer program improving heat detection and pregnancy rate.

The Houins have one farm where they milk cows that have trouble adapting to robotic milkers. On that farm, AfiLab records individual cow milk fat, protein, lactose and conductivity. It also helps identify cows with subclinical ketosis, mastitis and subclinical acidosis.

FeedWatch and VAS Handheld NIR moisture testers are used for feeding management. The farm relies on Lely Juno robots to keep feed in front of cows at all times. The dairies successfully use separated manure solids for bedding.

Beyond the Barn

"It's a race to net zero," Houin says. "The decisions we make from here on out are part of achieving that goal."

As independent shippers to the Walmart bottling plant in Fort Wayne, part of their commitment to Walmart is to continue reducing their carbon footprint over the next five years.

"Not necessarily to zero," Houin admits, "but continuous improvement is the goal."

Homestead Dairy set out to generate electricity as an additional revenue stream with eventual plans to become self-sustaining. They want to be good stewards of the land they farm and good members of the community they live in by making sure their farm is as environmentally and economically sustainable as possible. One step toward that goal was installing a methane digester in 2013. Today, they not only use the digester for their own manure management, but they've partnered with University of Notre Dame to recycle their food waste.

"For about a year. We've been taking Notre Dame's food waste from their cafeterias," Houin explains. "They've been trying to do something with their food waste for several years, and they finally got all the procedures and how to make it happen worked out."

The methane digester at Homestead Dairy currently powers 1,000 houses in their community.

"I think what I'm excited about is seeing the opportunities in the future," he says. "We've got our eyes and ears on some other things that hopefully, if we ever get back to a stable dairy industry, we can look at to be even more sustainable."

While Houin often grazes past it, because of his love for cow care, Homestead Dairy also cares for 5,000 acres of farmland in northern Indiana.

For a long time, Homestead Dairy has used precision planting technology in combination with soil and harvest data to sustainably grow crops to feed their cows.

"We soil sample a third of our acres every year, so all of our acres are soil sampled every three years," Houin explains. "We're variable rating all of our fertilizer, planting, pretty much everything based on soil samples, planting and harvest data."

Some farmers are wary as the Biden administration makes their commitment to climate change evident. Still, Houin says what will drive the industry toward net zero is consumer perception, not government enforcement.

"We've been blamed for greenhouse gas emissions; I don't think that's necessarily true," he says, "but my opinion in this doesn't matter, it's what the consumer believes and what the consumer wants, and that's what's going to dictate the direction of the dairy industry."

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