Automation Renovation: First Robotic Dairy in Kansas

Duane Meier has been milking cows his whole life. He started out milking at the same stanchion barn his grandfather built in 1919, and in a double-4 parlor constructed in 1971 by his father near Palmer, Kan.

In 1997, the Meier Dairy cows were moved into a freestall facility with a centralized double-10 parlor that had enough room to expand to a double-20. When four of the five Meier children joined the business and after nearly 20 years of parlor use, Meier was looking at options for expansion and innovation to benefit the family operation.

Rather than add onto the parlor, the Meier family opted to become the first robotic dairy in Kansas.

"I grew up carrying milk jugs and dumping them into a bulk tank. Now we're milking with robots. What does that mean?" Meier asks.

It means the Meiers are among a small percentage of the dairy industry that has gone all in with automation as their farm has evolved over the decades.

At the original dairy facilities where Meier's grandfather started milking‚ a quarter mile west of the freestall barns, are four automatic calf feeders. Those calf feeders installed four years ago served as a launching point toward automation.

The next step was installing the robotic milkers. There were no other robotic dairies in the area to bounce ideas off of or see in person. Trips were made to tour dairies across the country that had done similar, yet smaller, retrofits.

Five years of researching and planning finally came to fruition when the first cows walked through the 12 robots last September. "Our biggest challenge at first was finding a dealer," Meier says.

Several of the major robotics companies sent top officials to the Meier Dairy in an effort to see what could be done at the pre-existing facilities. Ultimately, the Meiers decided to place the robots along the outside walls of the center cross-over lanes in the freestall barns. Three robots service each side of each barn. One of the barns is six-row, the other is four-row.

A year later, Meier can now reflect on where his family started with the robots and where they are headed. Those first seven days, they were fetching cows round the clock, training them how to use the new technology. Meier's wife Ronda kept track of her steps during this week with a digital pedometer. In one 12-hour period, she had walked 10 miles just keeping the robots filled with cows.

"When they tell you it takes a lot of people [starting cows in robots], it takes a lot of people," Meier says.

Now, that isn't the case. Six people are taking care of 720 cows with more time to actually manage the cows and take care of 600 acres of crops.

Another problem the Meiers faced during the start of robotic milking was lower quality feed. Last fall‚ corn silage was much drier than it needed to be at chopping. The diet was eventually adapted in February to better work for the degraded quality of forage and milking in robots.

By spring things were starting to get where the family envisioned and cows were averaging 84 lb. of milk in May. Milk production increases are the equivalent of having 70 more cows, even with poor feed pulling down performance.

The majority of the Meier herd is Holstein genetics, while 10% is made up of registered Jerseys. Tank averages in the second week of August were 3.6% on butterfat and 3.16% on protein across the herd. Average box time was 6:24 minutes, up six seconds from the previous week largely because of higher temperatures slowing cows down.

"The beauty of this is you can actually pinpoint where your problem is," Meier says of robotic milking. In a conventional parlor that often is not the case, he explains. There, you're frequently looking at personnel problems which are more difficult to fix.

"The good thing and the bad thing is there is a lot of information. You just have to decipher through it," Meier says.

Additionally, in the freestall barns there are three automatic feed pushers that patrol the feed alleys and aid in the automation movement.

"We're still on a learning curve. [But] it's not quite as steep as it used to be," he says.

For instance, robots give the Meiers the ability to sort cows into a catch pen for breeding. Meier's sons are learning how to better use this feature and reduce time spent looking for cows that need to be bred.

Training fresh heifers to go through the robots still takes some time at about 10 days per heifer.

Meier says the move for automation came as a means in helping alleviate labor concerns. Prior to installing the robots, Meier Dairy cows were only being milked twice a day because it was difficult to find milkers and the parlor was almost maxed out.

The old parlor now serves as a storage area while the retired milking equipment sits and gathers cobwebs. Meier hopes to sell the milking equipment, fill in the pit and make the parlor into a housing facility for calves. It's just one more renovation toward automation.