Farming in eastern Germany has seen many shifts since World War II. There was the rise of communism where farms employed hundreds of workers in a state mandated system. The fall of the Berlin Wall led to restructuring as Germany became one country again and now a quarter of a century later big changes are happening once more.
Agrargenossenschaft Teichel e.G. has been a cooperative farm since 1953 and sits on the outskirts of a village called Teichröda. The remnants of the old communist regime are still evident at the farm with Soviet-style barns made entirely from concrete standing near the mess hall that would have served 500-plus workers meals each day. Just to the northwest of those grey concrete Soviet creations are several new green tin barns reminiscent to many dairies in the Midwestern U.S. and a sign to a more capitalistic future.
Eckhardt Blöttner manages the nearly 4,500-acre farm that includes row crops, hogs, poultry, and beef cattle. The primary livestock for the farm can be found in the new green free-stall barn housing 400 Holstein cows.
Much like the U.S., finding employees in Germany who want to work in agriculture can be difficult.
In 1991, after the reunification of Germany there were still 420 employees working for the 503 member owned-cooperative. The following decade the operation became more efficient dropping down to 49 people by 2002. Now there are 38 employees serving the 139 member owners of the farm.
An apprenticeship program has brought 26 people through the farm to learn about agriculture in the past 25 years. The best ones tend to stick around and become full-time employees, Eckhardt says.
To help further improve the efficiency of workers and production of cows a new parlor was needed at the farm. Plans were made to construct a 40-stall rotary parlor to replace the two separate double five-tandem milking parlors.
With the help of a local equipment dealer Eckhardt was asked if he’d be interested in trying a developing parlor technology: DairyProQ. GEA Farm Technologies’ DairyProQ is an automatic milking system that features individual robotic modules for each stall on a rotary.
DairyProQ went fully operational on June 16, 2014 at the farm and now milks approximately 200 cows per hour at one site with three milkings per day.
Eckhardt believes the change in milking systems and housing facilities has helped improve the health status in the cows while increasing daily yield.
“We started with a herd average of 61.7 lb. per cow per day. We now milk 72.7 lb. per cow and the high-yielding group has a daily milking of 92.6 lb.,” Eckhardt says.
Cows at the Teichröda farm have added 11 lb. in production after moving into a new automated parlor and free-stall barn.
Cows went into the free-stall barn with an average somatic cell count of 260,000 cells/mL. After adjusting to the somatic cell count has dropped to 90,000 cells/mL.
The change in milking systems has afforded more time to focus on other duties around the farm. Typically, two employees are present at the dairy during an 8-hour shift along with the herd manager. Only one person needs to be in the parlor to insure no cows are missed because of undesirable teat formation.
Eckhardt’s son Stefan thinks that milking the cows is now the easy part of the job at the farm. “We just open the door and the cows walk in,” Stefan says of the new rotary.
Along with helping out at the dairy Stefan also works for the state of Thuringia’s farmers association and holds a PhD in dairy genetics. With his background in genetics, Stefan is interested in the data he can receive back from the system to help breed a more healthy and profitable cow.
Each stall of the DairyProQ rotary has the capability to individually track cow production with activity monitors or identify cows with an RFID ear-tag.
A producer can easily troubleshoot problems with the modules by communicating wirelessly to individual stalls. Each DairyProQ installation has two to three extra stalls that can be installed if an arm or computer goes down.
“Automatic milking is the future. There is no way we’re going back to milking by hand,” Stefan says.
The DairyProQ rotary features a digital monitor to view how each cow is performing during a milking.
The Blöttners aren’t the only producers who have been impressed with the results they’ve seen switching to an automated rotary. Andreas Polster serves as facility manager of Landwirtschaftsgenossenschaft e.G. Ottendorf/Krumbach, a 530 cow dairy that just installed a 28-stall DairyProQ rotary.
“The aim was to make a better place for the cows and employees,” Polster says. The hope is for the parlor and barns to continue being in use 25 years from now.
The Ottendorf/Krumbach farm has similar Soviet-style barns where the cows were housed until the new freestall was opened on February 28 and milking began in
Currently, 15 employees work on the farm specifically related to dairy production. In the future it will likely be 13 workers.
Polster admits the cows had a bit of an adjustment period in the new barn going from a straw-bedded tie-stall to free-stall mattresses. Brushes will be installed later to help add more comfort to the cows.
After about four months, the Holstein herd is averaging approximately 64 lb. of milk per day in the new facilities, 4.5 lb. less than the old barns. Polster believes the drop in production might be related to the lack of a concentrate being fed on the rotary.
Calves and heifers are now raised in the old barns at both farms, while the cows have moved into new free-stall barns.
The cost of installing a DairyProQ rotary would be roughly three-times a standard rotary parlor. Federal/state subsidies were available for the dairy in Teichröda to help pay 30 percent of the installation through a milk program.
There are no DairyProQ parlors in the U.S. yet, but North America should have an automated rotary operational in western Canada by the end of the year.
Editorial Correction: An earlier version of this story's title referenced the parlors as being the "world's first automated rotaries." The DeLaval AMR actually would be the first debuting in November 2010 in Hanover, Germany.