By: Jane Lethlean, The (Freeport) Journal-Standard
Days start early for 29-year-old dairy farmer John Lawfer.
Often in darkness, he heads to the barn, but instead of going to the milking parlor, he heads to his office. He calls up a program on his computer to check on the overnight data for milk production of the 115-head herd that has been milked overnight.
The Kent, Ill., milking operation at the Lawfer family farm, which includes his father, Ron, and mother, Julie, has gone high tech. The cows are milking themselves. It's an around-the-clock daily milking operation that has seen production increase since December when they added a robotic milking system.
While they still milk some of their herd in the traditional milking parlor on their farm, they built a state-of-the-art fabric barn to add robots to milk the rest of their herd. Robotic milkers feed and milk cow after cow without help. The cows line up to take their turn at being milked.
The new way of milking allows these farmers to spend more time taking care of the herd, without the worry of making sure cows were milked twice a day. With this operation, the cows milk themselves, sometime three to five times a day. The computer collar each cow wears monitors data. If the cow is not to be milked once it steps into the robotic chute, it will be kicked out for the next cow to be milked.
"This is not for everyone, but what this allows is for good managers of a herd to be great managers to get that extra pound of milk," John said. "But it goes beyond the milk; it really comes down to the comfort of the cow. We are dealing with a living creature, and there is a gift to the robotic arm way of milking, which allows for a more content cow. And this herd is so much more laid back, because they milk when they need to milk, and they don't have to wait for us to do it for them."
The Lawfer farm is a family operation that dates back three generations. When Ron and Julie learned John wanted to become a part of a tradition of dairy farmers, they began to brainstorm to update the farm to accommodate changes in the industry.
"We looked at where we were and where we wanted to go to help John achieve staying with the farm and keep the milking production growing," Julie said. "Ron and I want to remain involved, but dairy farming is labor intensive, and with technology, it helps take the labor out of it, and improve production."
John graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville in 2008 with a degree in animal science and business. He had seen robotic farming while in college. John said it took years to improve on the robotics, but once he learned about the Lely Astronaut A4 Robotic Milking System, he knew he had found the technology needed to move forward.
The family broke ground on the 124-foot by 300-foot fabric barn in April 2014. They added the cows in December. The key was getting the cows trained to use the robot system.
Julie admits to many sleepless nights, despite help from friends and other dairy farmers.
"We spend as much time with the cows as possible," John said. "The key to robots is the cow movement through the system, and this allows for time and flexibility, which gives me more time to work with the special needs of some cows."
The data collected on each cow rests in the collar. The collar must sit on a nerve in the neck just right to collect the data. With the transponders around the neck of the cow, the cows get individualized collection of data. Lasers on the robotic arm scan and map the underbelly of each cow.
John collects that data to review each cow several times a day. Two robots take care of the 115 herd being milked. The average milking time per cow is seven minutes, 30 seconds.
"I tell people you're still working with a living creature, and this operation is more than a robot," John said. "It's innovative, and it has fine-tuned milking."
Bruce Johnson, Stephenson County Farm Bureau manager, said this new technology is what it takes to help smaller farmers stay competitive.
"It's technology that will change the industry, but more important, help the smaller farmer," Johnson said.
Ron said the reason they still do some traditional milking of their herd is that some cows did not adapt well to the robotic system.
"Cows are like people," Ron said. "Some didn't adapt, but our goal is to milk cows that are the most fresh and follow the lactation curve, and when that changes, those cows go back to the milking parlor."