The value of peer groups is the farmer-to-farmer contact and lessons already learned by others, says Lisa Groetsch, here with her husband, Steve.
Peer groups help with the ins and outs of robotic milking
Surrounding yourself with other people who have similar interests and face similar challenges is a good idea in any kind of undertaking.
It can be especially valuable for dairy producers adopting a cutting- edge technology such as automatic, or robotic, milking systems.
Just ask Lisa Groetsch and her husband, Steve. The Groetsches, who manage a 280-cow dairy near Albany, Minn., installed four robotic milkers in January 2012. "Over the years, you build up a support group of other farmers, people you can talk to who are dealing with the same kind of problems and challenges that you are," Lisa says.
"But when you put something new in like this, the people in that group can’t really help you anymore. You feel like you’re all on your own."
Video of Groetsch milking system
To address the issue, Groetsch contacted Sarah Roerick, a local coordinator for the state department of agriculture’s Minnesota Dairy Initiative. The 12-year-old grant-funded program helps dairy producers troubleshoot problems that are keeping their farms from being more profitable. Together, they set up the Central Minnesota Dairy Profit Team Peer Group For Robotic Milker Users.
"There was a users’ group in southern Minnesota, but that would have been a pretty long drive for us," Groetsch says. "We wanted to see if we could get something going on a more local level."
In the first year, the Central Minnesota group has signed on about 20 interested producers. Most have already installed robotic systems. The others have shown a strong interest in putting in robots.
Basic workings of the group are fairly straightforward. "We go to one another’s farms about four times a year and talk about what’s going on and what everybody is learning day to day," Roerick explains.
"Before the meeting, I’ll send out an email and ask all the people on the list if they have any questions they’d like to have brought up. That becomes the agenda for the meeting. It’s pretty informal. But so far, it’s gone off without a hitch."
The real value of the meetings, Groetsch says, is the farmer-to-farmer contact. "You get a chance to talk to other people who have been experiencing the same kinds of things you have," she adds. "They’ve been through the training of the cows and figuring out the computer system. They understand what it’s like the first time the power goes out on you."
Referring to the meetings as "an ongoing, farmer-run conversation about robotic milking," Groetsch notes the group has avoided including company and/or dealer representation at the meetings.
"We don’t want it to turn into a sales pitch for any one particular company," she says. "We want people to feel free to open up and talk honestly about their experiences. If there’s someone from a local dealership on hand, people are less likely to say, ‘Well, we tried this but it didn’t work,’ or ‘It was a train wreck, so we did this instead.’ "
For the Groetsches, the meetings have yielded a variety of worthwhile, "take-home" ideas. "At one meeting, we talked a lot about feeding and how, with some of the systems, you can put in a second hopper so you can feed pellets and roasted beans," Lisa says. "We got lots of information about the advantages and disadvantages, which cows it might be best for and the costs.
"At the same meeting, we talked about whether you need to continue Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) testing if you’re milking with robots. One farmer talked about how his farm went back on DHI quarterly so they can use it to calibrate for fat and protein," she says.
Chad Kieffer, of Kiefland Holsteins, Utica, Minn., belongs to a robotic-milking users’ group in the southeast part of the state. He sees similar advantages.
"Surrounding yourself with other robot users in your area is one of the keys to making this kind of system work," Kieffer says. He notes that the group he belongs to often couples a farm tour with a lunch or dinner meeting at a local restaurant.
The group also invites consultants who have experience working with robots and local Extension personnel to the meetings when appropriate. But the primary emphasis is on farmer interaction. "You learn from other people who have faced the same challenges and you get alerted to some challenges that you might not have come across yet."
Ideas on how to better manage fetch cows and fine-tuning software for managing fetch cows have been among the meeting topics the Kieffers have found helpful.
"Seeing how other producers might be addressing specific problems that you’re having is the real benefit," Kieffer says. He is part of a family management team which also includes his parents Gary and Linda Kieffer, his wife, Kendra, and his sister and brother-in-law, Cortney and Dylan Duncanson.
Since 2011, the Kieffers, who milk 300 cows, have installed five robotic milkers. "We were having trouble with the ropes that are used for attaching and detaching the teat cups on the milkers," Chad explains. "We have sand bedding. It’s pretty abrasive and cuts the ropes. So we were changing the ropes every two weeks or so.
"At one of the first meetings we went to, the host farmer had the same problem," he says. "He showed us how he had replaced the ropes with chains. After hearing the same thing from a couple of others, we made the switch. We haven’t had to replace the chains in over a year."
Facebook for Robots
As another avenue for staying connected to other robot users, Chad Kieffer takes part in an online social networking site developed by the manufacturer (Lely) of the system he’s using.
"It’s modeled after Facebook," he explains. "You go on and invite other robot users to be your friends. You can see their data from week to week or day to day and compare information for their farm and your farm.
"It broadens the area for coming up with ideas," Kieffer says. "You can compare with robot users in other states or even in other countries."
- June/July 2014