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October 2013 Archive for Labor Matters

RSS By: Dairy Today: Labor Matters, Dairy Today

Experts cover today’s key dairy labor issues and offer fool-proof techniques to optimize employee performance, sat­isfaction and longevity.

Budgeting for a Robotic Milking System

Oct 28, 2013

Dairy producers often overlook three areas when planning and budgeting for robotic milking facilities.

By Greg Larson, MIone multi-box robotic milking system expert, GEA Farm Technologies

Investing in a robotic milking facility is a big decision to make for today’s dairy producer. There are many advantages to these types of facilities from both a herd management and lifestyle perspective. Yet, in order to be successful with a robotic milking system, it takes proper planning and budgeting.

MM5 8801   robotic milker
Bedding choice, manure handling equipment and site planning for the future are three areas commonly overlooked when dairy producers are putting budgets and plans together for robotic milking facilities. Photo courtesy of GEA Farm Technologies.

The first determination when planning for a robotic milking facility is to decide whether or not you have the borrowing capacity to build a new facility. Your banker will become a key team player in your decision making process, as you explore many facets of what your facility and management style will consist of.

After you have discussed business with your banker, you will need to ask yourself if you are going to operate the barn in a free-flow traffic environment or if you’re going to operate in a milk-first environment.

With free-flow traffic, the cow has the ability to go from the free stall, to the feed lane, to the robot to eat and be milked and then lay down. The cow can do each of these steps when she chooses to do so.

A milk-first environment utilizes technology and software to pre- and post-select cows that are eligible for specific management activities. For example, in pre-selection only cows that are eligible to be milked based on pre-set criteria can go the robot. With post-selection, if a cow needs to be hoof-trimmed or dry-treated, the system will automatically sort her.

Advantages exist for both systems. The largest advantage is less purchased feed cost in a milk-first system. In the milk-first system the amount of grain fed in the robotic milking stall is limited. This means the dairy producer can feed a true total mixed ration (TMR) at the feed bunk. In a free-flow traffic facility, the majority of the energy in the ration is fed in the robotic milking stall. As a result, it’s not uncommon that purchased feed cost in a free-flow traffic facility is 50% to 60% higher than in a milk-first system.

Once the determination has been made that the facility will be free-flow or milk-first, bedding material and the manure handling system need to be decided. The type of bedding chosen has a direct impact on manure handling equipment and barn design. Cows in the robotic facility never leave their group; cows are laying down, walking to the milking robotic center and eating at the bunk. As a result, manure drop placement and the mechanical manure handling devices need to be chosen wisely.

From a budgetary aspect, bedding choice impacts how much investment the facility will need to make in its manure system. For example, one facility that is being installed has chosen to bed with mattresses and sawdust. The manure handling system consists of an automatic scraping system to the manure drop where the manure will gravity-flow to a 3.5 million gallon pit.

In contrast another facility with the same milking set-up has chosen sand bedding. This manure handling system consists of scrapers, a crossed gutter channel, a mechanical device to move the manure to a small holding pit, an agitator, a manure pump and piping to pump the manure from a pit to a long-term storage area. As you can see the investment in manure handling equipment varies significantly depending upon bedding choice.

Dairy producers need to put a concerted effort into understanding the manure handling system that will be best for their robotic milking facility. The manure experts should be included in the discussion from the very beginning. However, many times they are brought in at the end, when plans are already in the works. This is why team planning and working with a total solutions provider are key elements to facility design.

Outside of bedding choice and manure handling equipment, site planning for your future is the third area that I see commonly overlooked when dairy producers are putting budgets and plans together for robotic milking facilities. When you start working through the planning process for a new facility, it’s extremely important to rely on field experts to guide you through the difficult decisions.

When putting together a budget for a robotic milking facility, take into consideration what the operation might look like in 10 years. You need to perform a site plan to answer the following questions:
• Are there areas of growth?
• How much will I spend in excavating?
• Can the dairy be expanded and what would the operation look like at that future herd size?
• How will my manure system work?
• How does the barn placement effect ventilation?
• Where is my feed storage?

Cow comfort and cow longevity within the robotic facility are typically the dairyman’s vision and value for their new facility. So, one must have vision of what the facility will look like but also have the ability to work out the details of the specific equipment in the barn.

Understanding all of these areas and scenarios GEA Farm Technologies can assist in putting together a plan and budget that works for your total solutions MIone dairy operation, today and in the future.

For more information, contact Greg Larson, MIone multi-box robotic milking system expert with GEA Farm Technologies at (877) 973-2479, email:, or go here.

Immigration Reform’s Late-Year Window

Oct 21, 2013

Immigration reform advocate Craig Regelbrugge reflects on the progress of 2013's legislative efforts and the window of possibility that exists for the House to act and negotiate with the Senate for a final compromise.

Regelbrugge photo 3 13   CopyBy Craig J. Regelbrugge, Co-chairman, Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform

Can meaningful immigration reform become law this year, or at least this Congress? Before going considering the possibilities, let’s reflect on how far we have already come on this most difficult of legislative journeys.

The first four months of 2013 were spent in incredibly challenging negotiations involving agricultural employer representatives and farm worker advocates. The goal was to forge a new legislative consensus around agricultural labor reforms that address the status of the current workforce, and establish a future agricultural visa program that actually works for the diversity of American agriculture. History has shown that one-sided efforts that are strongly opposed by the other side (worker advocates or employers) will fail politically.

At the end of April, success was achieved. The U.S. Senate, which ended up tackling immigration first, saw the wisdom of honoring the historic agreement that had been so hard-won. It was incorporated into S.744, and stayed intact through the entire Senate debate. S.744 passed the Senate at the end of June on a bipartisan vote.

Most farmers are rather conservative folks, and probably more likely than average to tune into conservative talk and news outlets. If so, they may have heard nothing but negative talk about the Senate’s effort to comprehensively fix an immigration system that is not serving the national interest. None of us necessarily likes everything in the bill, but to be clear, the agricultural portion is well-drafted, well reasoned, and reflects the hard work of people who will have to live with the result.

The House, however, is a different body and will follow a different path. Republican House leaders have charted a course to consider immigration in a series of individual bills. Five have already been approved by committees; those bills cover border security, interior enforcement, E-Verify, visas for highly educated workers, and an agricultural guest worker program. Other bills may be considered in the coming weeks, covering lesser-skilled non-agricultural workers, young undocumented people who were brought to the U.S. as minors, and even a broader legalization program.

The Ag Act, H.R. 1773, is a mixed bag. Many of its reforms may appeal to current H-2A users. But in its current form, the bill falls short of meeting the needs of various ag sectors and regions. Just as important politically, in current form it cannot pass! This is because any immigration bill is likely to be opposed by a bloc of between 20 and 70 Republicans. Republicans currently hold 232 seats, and it takes roughly 218 votes to pass a bill. Votes of Democrats will be needed, but the structure of the Ag Act virtually ensures unified opposition of Democrats.

We’ve been working under the umbrella of the Ag Workforce Coalition to seek improvements to the bill that would address fundamental concerns with its wage structure, visa cap, treatment of the current workforce, and lack of an "at-will" employment option. It’s a work in progress, but the closer this bill gets to our stakeholder agreement, the better the chances for success.

On that note, will the House finally act? It’s an open question. With the budget and debt debate now put off until early 2014, President Obama moved swiftly to call for Congress to pass a farm bill and immigration reform. Coming off that debate with little to show for it, conservatives are in no mood to deal with Obama. Rep. Raul Labrador (R-Idaho), reacted that it would be foolish to get into an immigration conference negotiation with a President intent upon destroying the Republican Party. (Some observers might opine that the Republican Party hardly needs the President’s help in that respect!) Heat-of-the-moment frustration is understandable, yet surely Republicans would not hold American agriculture hostage by refusing to seek a solution to its labor woes until 2017 at the earliest.

Emotions aside, there is now a window of possibility on the calendar, essentially between now and Christmas. We have little choice but to push hard for it. To that end, major immigration coalitions and initiatives are joining forces to hold an "Americans for Reform" legislative fly-in on Oct. 28 and Oct. 29. Even if you don’t plan to attend that, you can schedule a local appointment with your representative in the House within the next couple weeks.

Your message is simple: The House must act now. It should swiftly consider and pass as many of the reform bills as it can, and negotiate with the Senate to establish a final compromise. America will benefit from a 21st century immigration system. Agriculture needs a modernized agricultural visa program and a solution that works for our trained and experienced employees. Waiting is not an option; excuses are not a solution. The cost of inaction is high. It is time.

Based in Washington, D.C., Craig Regelbrugge is co-chairman of the Agriculture Coalition for Immigration Reform, and vice president for government relations with the American Nursery and Landscape Association. Contact him at or at 202-434-8685. 

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