The cows are lining up to be milked at Udder Hill Dairy south of Carthage, Ill.
But it is a robot, not a farmer, who will do the milking as the cows crunch on feed pellets.
Brothers Sid and Nate Huls installed the robotic system in December as a way to deal with the dairy's time and labor demands -- and with an eye toward the future.
"It's the future of farming, I guess, if the family wants to stay in business and still go to ballgames and whatever," Sid said. "We're not tied down to the farm near as much."
Twice-daily milkings and chores, starting at 3:30 a.m. and 3 p.m., used to take four hours each time for the brothers, one full-time employee and three part-time employees. With the new system and its three robotic units capable of handling 60 cows, "somebody still has to come through and do chores, but it should go from four hours morning and night to roughly one hour," Sid said.
The brothers remain on call 24 hours a day in case of any issues with the computerized equipment, which shuts down for 30 minutes twice a day for cleaning, but for the rest of the time is milking cows or waiting for cows to come in to be milked.
"The machines don't let us expand cow numbers at all, but let us add a milking per day with the same amount of labor," Nate said.
Robotic milking takes an average of 6 minutes, 48 seconds per cow -- and it's done on demand.
'It's their choice'
"If they want to come in and milk five times a day, it's their choice. We do try to make a minimum of two milkings per day, and right now we average just a little over three milkings a day," Sid said.
Part of the new system's appeal for the cows is the feed pellets released during the milking process.
"It doesn't dump them all at once," Sid said. "It gives her a little at a time to keep her busy."
The amount of pellets varies cow to cow based on their production which "makes it more efficient feeding," Sid said. "Before we'd feed basically the whole herd as one individual cow. Now we're getting what she needs. It's specialized."
Even more impressive than the time and labor savings is the technology involved.
Collars with computer chips allow the robot to recognize each of the herd's 160 milking cows and her unique teat placement. The robotic arm scrubs the cow's teats twice before attaching the milking equipment, tracks milk flow, removes teat cups as needed to prevent overmilking and sanitizes the milking equipment after each cow.
"If the cow moves forward or back, the arm moves with her. It's like a slow dance all the time," Nate said. "If you let it work, it's usually smart enough to fix itself."
The computer measures temperature and records daily milk production, feed intake and daily activity including how much the cow chews its cud.
'Fitbit on a cow'
"Basically it's a Fitbit on a cow. It tracks her movement every day," Sid said, referring to the popular wearable activity tracker for people. "It's like an information overload. It's so much more information than we ever had before."
Newer features of robotic milking systems "catch" cows in heat or signaling illness, then open a gate to move those animals into a separate management pen. "Over time it helps with herd health management, to catch cows with sickness before they're actually showing physical signs," Sid's wife Kristin said.
The brothers and their employees still have daily chores, starting with the "fetch list" supplied each morning by the computer -- a list of those cows that haven't milked in eight hours or more. They hose down barn floors, change milk filters daily, check the herd, bottle feed calves and feed the milking cows and young stock.
Maintaining young stock is key to the dairy operation.
"Our goal is to raise our own from the time they're born," Kristin said. "There's less risk of introducing health issues into the herd. You know your genetics."
Robotic milking systems have been used in other countries for nearly two decades, but have been in use in the United States only for about six years. Already using technology like GPS to raise corn and soybeans, the brothers said adding it to the dairy was the next step -- even if it was something their dad Lloyd never expected to see.
'A long time ago'
"I started when I was six years old with a T-handled milk stool and a three-gallon stainless steel pail milking cows by hand. That was a long time ago," Lloyd said. "I'm not computer literate, and I won't say it's the thing of the future, but it's definitely a labor saver, herd improvement-type thing."
Planning for the new system began in July with research and visits to farms already using similar equipment. Work on a new barn to house the robots began the day after Labor Day, and they were milking robotically by Dec. 7.
"Our goal when we started was to have it pretty self-sufficient when we got back into the field" this spring, Nate said.
The first three weeks meant plenty of adjustment for humans and herd.
"Like the cows are learning it, we're learning it," Nate said.
"For the first week, we had to help each cow, coax them to get into the machine. Once they learned the system, they caught on fast," Sid said. "The first time a new cow would come in, we had to get the (robotic) arm in the right position to help it find the first milking."
Launching the system in the winter when cows are most comfortable made sense, but the brothers hit a bitter cold snap that stressed both them and the herd just after switching to the new Lely units built in Pella, Iowa.
"Any dairy farmer will tell you their No. 1 goal is cow comfort," Kristin said. "The more comfortable the cows are, the higher they'll produce."
That's a lesson the brothers learned early while growing up in the dairy business. Lloyd sold his Holstein herd in the 1980s, and the brothers launched the dairy again in 2001, about the same time they first saw a robotic milking system at the World Dairy Expo.
Now the brothers hope for an eight-year payback on the investment they compare to the cost of buying one good farm, and early indications at least are promising. They've already seen a 12 percent increase in milk production and want to reach a goal of an 8 percent annual increase in production.
"There's just a lot that we're still learning to do," Nate said. "The exciting part is what is the full potential of it."
Perhaps most important, the system may help pave the way for the farm's future.
"One day we hope some of our kids come back to farm. The old way we were milking, more than likely, the kids wouldn't want to come back to that system," Sid said. "Now it's mostly computer-oriented, and the kids thrive on that kind of stuff."
Source: The Quincy Herald-Whig, http://bit.ly/2kDItxH