Milking twice a day in their aging 81-cow tie-stall barn, Dean Marshik and his wife, Clare Palmquist, knew it was time for an upgrade.
“One day, I decided we should check out some robots,” explained Dean, living as the fifth generation on his family’s Pierz, Minn., farm. Marshik and Palmquist are winners of the 2014 Dairy Sustainability Awards from the Innovation Center for U.S. Dairy for their outstanding achievement in energy efficiency.
“I didn’t even know what robots were,” Clare admitted. But today, she’s the one with an app on her smartphone, allowing her to monitor the robot dashboard from anywhere she can find reception.
It was 2009, and the couple had been together for 16 years. Clare joined Dean on the farm in 1993, and they purchased the operation from Dean’s parents in 1999.
Clare, a self-described city girl and horse enthusiast, said she always envisioned herself in a rural environment, but dairy cows were never part of her dream. The two connected when Clare served as daycare provider for Dean’s son.
Once Clare joined the operation, she took over the calf and heifer area while Dean continued milking 81 cows, but no more.
“I refused to let him Milking twice a day in their aging 81-cow tie-stall barn, Dean Marshik and his wife, Clare Palmquist, knew it was time for an upgrade.switch in the tie-stall, so 81 is all we ever had,” Clare said.
But, as they began to think about needed upgrades and what the next generation might want in improvements, robots were the only logical decision for Dean.
“Our bodies couldn’t do it all, and robots are more attractive to the next generation,” he said.
While they don’t know who the next generation might be, both their son, serving with the military in Japan, and current or future farm employees are potential applicants.
The facilities upgrade started in 2010, and milking in the new 144-stall freestall barn with robots began on Feb. 1, 2011. At the time, industry advice was to take it slow in introducing cows to robots, rather than pushing them through. That advice meant they essentially lived in their new barn for 2 months.
“Luckily we installed a shower, brought a couch, and had beer in the fridge. It was a rough startup for people, but maybe it was better for the cows,” Clare said.
While they did have challenges at startup, Clare’s firm decision to milk only 81 in the previous barn proved to be a benefit.
“We culled the cows we wanted to in the tie-stall, and were left with udders that worked well with the robot,” Dean said.
The couple experimented breeding their Holsteins to Jerseys, followed by Brown Swiss for two years due to calving troubles. The decision sent their components up, but the inconsistency in genetics wasn’t something they thought about in terms of stall size.
“But we could immediately see the Jersey-bred cows would go through the gate system 30 times a day, while many Holsteins struggled to get through three times a day,” Dean explained. “We could immediately see the Jersey-bred cows would go through the gate system 30 times a day, while many Holsteins struggled to get through three times a day.”
Trading electricity for labor
When they began penciling the robot facility’s equipment and costs, Marshik and Palmquist came to the realization they were trading payroll expenses for a bigger electricity bill. Therefore, they wanted to be as efficient with electricity as possible while ensuring as little downtime as they could. They are now milking nearly 50 more cows with about the same amount of labor as before.
After looking into grant programs, they installed a wind turbine in 2008. It cost $67,000, but grants covered nearly 25% (the couple notes steel prices drove turbine cost much higher shortly after their installation). Two years of wind data allowed them to realize they could build a fan-free naturally cross-ventilated barn. Although they added a few high-efficiency fans later for the hottest days of the year, visiting them on a 75-degree day with 125 cows in the barn was a comfortable experience – with none of the fans running.
The couple also invested in the high-efficiency T8 lighting, which, after rebates and energy savings, cost the same as traditional freestall barn lighting. In their utility room, they have two vacuum pumps, two air compressors, and two water heaters. With two DeLaval Voluntary Milking Systems (VMS) for robots and 125 cows, they needed to ensure that everything is working at full capacity as much as possible.
Cows are fed pellets in the robot and a PMR (partial-mixed ration) in front of headlocks. All cows are in one pen.
The barn is built to “feed first,” where cows must enter the headlock area before moving into the robot pen, and then can return to the freestalls. The barn also has alley scrapers to minimize cow disruption and labor. Manure falls through slats and is transferred to a lagoon – another upgrade the farm needed when they were evaluating options.
In a robot facility, bulk tank washes often trigger the washing of robots, too. Marshik and Palmquist knew they needed a lot of hot water, fast, so the put their water heaters in-line to make the process faster and more efficient.
The six automatic air-filled curtains that keep heat in on cool days each use as much energy as a 60-watt light bulb, Clare said.
They also brought in 3-phase power, which they made financially feasible by working with their power company and signing a contract for future power usage.
One final addition included a solar array, which cost $56,000 (nearly 50% was covered by grants), although both the wind turbine and solar panels had additional grant-writing fees. They optimized their panels by building a machine shed with a pitch that matched the best angle to catch sun for their farm – saving them from taking up land space to install the panels. Clare can also watch the production of each of the individual 44 panels’ micro-inverters on her phone.
Staying for supper
One of the biggest changes at the dairy is flexibility. Marshik and Palmquist reflected how enjoyable it is to stay for the meal portion of weddings. Although work remains for them when they get home, there isn’t a set time they need to be back.
Should the next generation want to expand, the barn wasbuilt to mirror itself in a westward addition. They built their office and “control center” on the west side of the barn to be able to look into the current and future robot installs. The center looks like a darkroom, fitted with tinted windows, and lights are kept off because tours and workers distract cows coming in to be milked.
Dean gets up around 4 or 5 a.m. and spends about 2.5 hours in the robot area, cleaning, fetching cows, and sending heifers that are due within 10 days through the gates. The process repeats at 4 p.m.
Clare comes out at 6:30 a.m. to check the list of cows that need attention. “Or, as Dean says, I come out to bug him,” Clare joked. “He usually already knows about 75% of them, but sometimes, between the activity monitors, milk production, milking intervals, feed consumption, and conductivity reports, I can find a cow that he hasn’t noticed.” Then, she feeds the calves and heifers on the other side of the farm.
Another way to stay efficient is doing their own repairs during the rare times something goes wrong with either of the robots. That means keeping over $25,000 in equipment on hand so they can fix mechanical parts, with over the phone assistance instead of waiting for a technician to arrive from Wadena, Minn., 70 miles away.
Overall, Palmquist and Marshik arevery happy with their decision, and encourage other producers to look for energy efficiency opportunities. While it’s impossible to compare the old and new barn with their very different systems, the turbine covered 25% of the electricity costs when they milked in the tie stall barn. Today, the turbine and solar panels cover 20% of the farm’s electric costs.
“It does take a lot of time to search and apply for the grants,” Clare admitted. “But if we want to save energy, especially with things like solar and wind, the returns aren’t there yet without funding from somewhere.”