Me, Myself and Robots: Robotic Barn Changes Kentucky Farm's Work Flow

Malvern Hills Farm Milking with Robotics
A new robot barn has changed the way a Kentucky farmer spends his days caring for cattle. ( Malvern Hills Farm )

In the hills of southern Kentucky, a dairy producer is getting by with limited labor milking 210 cows with a few robotic milkers and a parlor.

Richard Mattingly and his wife, Sharon, bought their farm in December 1995. They transitioned into a custom Holstein heifer grower business the next fall and added some broiler chicken barns in 1998.

When Mattingly left his off-farm job as a feed salesman in 2004, he grew his dairy replacement heifer business in the coming years, a choice that would set him on a course to milking his own cows. The decision was further sparked when the heifer development market hit hard times during a down 2009 milk market. 

Renovated Old Parlor

“A few years later as I was trying to figure out ‘how am I going to hang on to this operation,’ there was an old milking parlor (on the farm) that I swore I would never milk cows in again,” Mattingly says.

Thirty years after leaving the family farm, he was back milking cows in the spring of 2011.

“I decided to fire up the old parlor and see if I could remember how to milk cows again,” Mattingly says. “And I’ve been trying to figure it out ever since.”

Three years ago, Mattingly toured a farm in Tennessee that was using robotic milkers, and it set him on the path of adding automation to his own dairy operation. At the time he was using migrant employees and was becoming frustrated with locating labor. Mattingly visited another 18 dairies across the country using robotic milkers, and he made the decision to go down the path of automation.

“I figured out I needed a new facility because there was no way to take the old facility and retrofit for a one-man operation,” Mattingly says.

On March 27, 2017, Mattingly started milking a majority of his cows in three DeLaval VMS robots at Malvern Hills Farm near Glasgow, Ky.

The new facility features a guided flow system and has easy tip gates to help move cows along. A computer guides the cows to the holding pen for milking as they desire.

Simplified Management

“It’s easy for me to come in, mainly twice a day, and get the cows that need to be fetched,” Mattingly explains. He uses his phone to monitor the DeLaval app regularly, along with looking at his computer.

“It makes it really easy with the way the system is set up that I can walk through and quickly get cows pushed in that need to be pushed in, monitor the cows that need to be monitored, and the robots do the work,” Mattingly says. At the new facility additional labor savings are delivered by an automatic manure scrapper and a robotic feed pusher that works every two hours.

He describes his workforce as “me, myself and I.” On occasional weekends the Mattinglys’ daughter offers help and another employee milks some of the cows in the old parlor half the time in addition to feeding.

The three robots are now handling approximately 160 cows, averaging 2.9 visits per day. Production has reached 4,700 lb. per robot and 89 lb. per cow per day.

Parlor Still in Use

The parlor now milks 50 cows, twice a day. The parlor has worked nicely as a transition facility with cows spending three days in the parlor before moving to the robot facility. Cows that have poor teat placement for the robots or just don’t want to go through the robots remain at the parlor.

Also, first lactation cows spend up to two weeks at the parlor to help ease their transition. When milking fresh cows and problem animals in the parlor, Mattingly says, “It’s really beneficial to be able to see them yourself.”

In the future, Mattingly could see the potential to add a four-robot barn with a second full-time employee who has an animal or dairy science background.