Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Floor plan of robot barn

Here is the floor plan of the flat barn.  Under the red canopy sits the “box” where the cow stands to eat and be milked.  We did not put up the red canopies.  In our building design, we overhung the roof and floor joists to make a cover a bit wider and longer for the cow to have protection from the rain, sun, snow & to hang fans and lights. We try to keep the cow as comfortable as possible when she is eating and being milked. 

An intruder in the flat barn!

Sunday, August 9
Its about 5 a.m. right now and I am unable to sleep.  The robots called me with an alarm at a little past 3 a.m. this morning.   When I went out to the flat barn (our robotic dairy building), still half asleep, I found a cow inside the building with the robots. I had to do a double take, and wipe my eyes to make sure I was really seeing a cow inside the robot room.  She was pushed into a corner, kind of trapped by a robot on the south of her and a robot on the west of her.  There was a concrete wall to the north of her and a very small opening to the east of her.  I had to take the  robots out of service, move them to a different posisiton and open our 4’ wide man door (where we enter) to let her out of the flat barn.  Then I opened the gates to let her back into the corral.  I was fearful that she would not go back to be milked for a while after this experience.  I then went back into the flat barn, put the robots back into operation.  
I was inside cleaning up the robots and the mess the cow had made, trying to figure out how in the crap she got inside the barn.  When I looked over to robot #3, there she was!  T-R # 64 had made her way to the robot that fast and was standing there eating her feed waiting to be milked.  As I watched her being milked, still amazed at how dang cool these robotic milking machines are, I figured she must have slipped down in robot box # 1 and crawled on her knees inside the flat barn.  She was in there for well over an hour before she got trapped in the corner.  I have been wondering for the last five hours if she just stood in the middle of the flat barn watching her friends being milked without any humans around thinking,  “Holy Cow! This is cool!”, and then when she went to get a closer look at something on the robots, both of the robots of 1 & 2 moved together and trapped her in the corner where I found her.  I just smile at how calm she was when I got her out & how quickly she went right back to being milked by the robot.  Gosh- being a dairy farmer is full of adventure. 

The "flat barn"

Here is a picture of our “flat barn” as we call it.  The cows do not enter the inside of the building.  The outside has a “box” where the cow enters through a gate, and the gate closes behind her, leaving her alone in the box to eat and be milked.  There is an opening in the wall of the building that allows the robot to swing its arm under the cow.  The arm brushes, cleans, & prepares the teats for milking, then the arm positions itself under the cow & the teat cups are attached to the teats individually. 

Monday, August 10, 2015

Production up

July 27
Automatic Milking System is going well.  The cows are going through really well.  Production is on its way up at a slow and steady pace.  Cows are going through about 2.7 times per day on the average with the high cows going through as many as 5 times.  The higher the production of the animals and the more recently they have freshened (had a calf), the more they go to the robots on their own and also go more frequently to the robots to get milked. 

A second chance....

July 20
It is amazing to me that we can take numerous days and trips to the robots to train a cow, & it can all be undone by just one trip that is a lousy experience.  The robots went down for about 4.5 hours a bit ago.  I was frustrated by how long the line was of cows waiting to be milked.  It seemed like it took 2-3 days to catch up on the milkings.  Some of the cows we had to guide to the robot barn again. It was as if they were thinking—“I was over there the other night, waited 3+ hours and wasn’t able to get in, so I ‘m not going back”.  It has since caused me to be more patient with restaurants.  You see, we eat out often.  Most of our experiences are good, pleasant and even enjoyable.  But a couple incidents still recent enough to be on my mind are times when I order & have to wait 55 minutes for my food, and then they get my order wrong & I think similar to what I think my cows thought—“….. I had a bad experience last time and am not going back”  I wish my cows had better memories and could think that 17 of the last 18 times was a great experience, I will walk back over to the robot building again today…… The other side of the coin also makes me realize the importance of making sure that the cows always have a positive experience going to the flat barn,  just like us humans want a positive experience every time we go out to eat.   And maybe I need to give some of those restaurants another chance....

Friday, June 19, 2015

Monitoring the robots is a big project.

The dairy consultant that is my rep from the company where I purchased the robots is a great help.  He is looking at the data on my computer via “team viewer” and helping me to monitor the cows and the progress that we are making, the problems that exist, and areas that we can improve on. 

One issue with me is that this company is from the Netherlands and hasn’t incorporated US English into the CRS ( the brains of the operation) .  The CRS calls my phone if there are “alarms” and most of the time I hear what the machine is saying, but I don’t understand (like listening to my wife).  The alarms are things such as- if there are 3 consecutive failures, a sensitivity sensor is out, filter not changed, low water pressure, low air pressure, waste milk buckets full & so forth.  It calls me and for some of the alarms it shuts down the robot. For others it is not critical, so it continues to milk.  I consider it a major accomplishment to be able to sleep through the night without a call from the CRS.  I have the phone number of my CRS programmed into my phone as “Domo Gory Oto, Mr. Roboto”  words from a song, when I was a bit younger. 

I have actually gotten two nights of consecutive uninterrupted sleep finally and so I am thinking that life is going to be good and get back to normal.

I have a  bunch of neighbors who ask about the how the robots are doing, and I usually reply somehow along the line of – well, the robots have been kicked- but they didn’t cuss the cow, slap the cow, just went right back to milking. The robots haven’t called in sick, had to leave to run an errand, showed up late, nor argued with each other.  I might think I have the perfect milking machine, IF we could get all the bugs worked out of it and running a bit better.

Overall the robot experience is looking up and getting better. It still has room to improve and we must get more improvement on efficiencies and increased milk production. We need to get better cow flow and have the cows totally trained.  That will probably never happen, since there are new ones calving indefinitely, but we will keep milking along!      


Tuesday, June 16, 2015

13 Alarms in one day on the "brains" of the system

Sunday May 31
Today sucked. 
It's Sunday night. I haven't been in the house a total of an hour since 5:30 a.m.  I had thirteen errors today on the CRS - that's the brains that control all the valves, air lines, robots, milk pumps etc....
I had my future son in law and his family and some of my daughter's friends over and showed the robot room and Automatic Milking System to them Saturday night.  I must have bragged it up too much. I was sure thinking things were starting the smooth track. Boy, was that bad thinking.
Dan, from Lely, has been a good help this week with adjusting the computer and putting up more dashboard type instruments to watch and monitor cow flow, milk, feed intake, successful attachments & not successful and also box time and prep time.  It is good to see that we are improving.
Robots have been up and running now for about 12 days.  The first six were lousy to miserable to retrain and lots of unexpected problems.  The second group of six were repositioning cameras to the original settings, spending time inside the robot room to "drive" the robots to the correct starting point, and now things appear to be looking up. 

We continue to have many visitors to the dairy to watch the robots work.  When the robots are all working it is truly an amazing site to watch the unmanned dairy barn at work.  I still do not trust that all is going well.  I don't sleep well.  I get up at all hours of the night and go check on the robots.  I am fascinated at how well they work in the night.  I believe from looking at all the information that is generated from the computer that the robots are most efficient at nighttime.  When nobody is around scraping corrals, fluffing up the beds, nor just checking on the cows, it seems that the cows love to go get milked by the robots. 

We continue to increase milk each day, and are almost back to the level of production prior to robot installation.  The components, both fat and protein, are both up slightly since switching to robots to milk.  I know we are not as rough on the milk, beating it with motor impellors and dropping it into the tank from above & I wonder how much effect that has on components.  I continue to be in awe that we can fill the milk tank from the bottom just pushing the milk with air.  It is a great sound to sit in the tank room and hear a cow's milk from the robot room being plunged with air into the tank & hear the gurgling sound as it is pushed into the bottom of the tank. 

Biggest problem is that I am still really disappointed that the robots will not milk my smaller animals, especially the young jersey cows.  I feel that I was a bit deceived by the messages that were placed out there of the success of all cows regardless of size.  I am even more nervous looking to the future as I have a bunch of jersey heifers bred & ready to calve this summer and fall.  I wonder what plans I may have to change, or what programs to implement to try to mitigate this problem.  I am still waiting to see and hear what Lely and DSC have to say and do to mitigate this issue.
Things seemed to be much better this evening than they were early this morning and most of the day.
We are about 20 days at least behind at planting corn. Most of my fields where we plant corn are partially under water.  The rain from the last 25 days has sure left us a long way behind and a lot of catching up to do.    I hope we finally have a good week both with the robots and making headway with working some fields if they dry enough so we can get some corn seed in the ground.

Unmanned flat barn milking 24 hours a day

Well, it has been a while since I posted, so I am looking over my notes to see the progress made and some of the happenings at the robots. 
Dairy farming is more than just milking cows and taking care of livestock each day.  Here at the dairy we also put up feed for the cows.  I have complained about the rain in prior posts, but it has us a long ways behind on getting corn planted and hay put up. 

Last week was spent swathing hay, chopping hay, raking hay - trying to bale hay and then the rain came again, so we raked the hay again and then continued baling another day.  All of this is happening while we are still trying to prepare some ground to plant corn, and actually plant the corn.  I finished planting the corn yesterday on June 15.  One of my wise old neighbors said that he has always heard that if it isn't planted by June 10 to not plant, because it will not mature.  I hope I get an extra five days this year because about half my corn acres were planted after the 10th of June.

As I have been in the fields and my father with me, my kids have really stepped up with putting the cows through the robots.  The cows were going through so well that we moved about a dozen more down to the robot pen.  That was probably a bad idea looking back.  We also have had about 30 cows calve in the last 25 days.  The fresh cows take extra time to train them and care for them for the first days after calving.  It is very interesting how some of the fresh cows seem to learn remarkable fast and others are a bit   s l o w e r   in their learning.  That is a lot like us humans, huh???

A bit of the background here is that on most all dairies when a human goes into the pen it is to bring up the entire herd of cows to the holding pen, where the cows wait to enter the milking parlor.  So with robotic milking barns, where the cows have access every day all day long, we don't move the entire herd anywhere really all at once.  We go get select cows that the computer tells us to go get.
Anyway, the robots are milking good and getting better. 

We have learned that there are a few cows you want to stay away from.  We are in the corrals more the last 3+ weeks with the cows, without really making most of them go anywhere, and we have found that a bunch of the cows just want to come "hang out" around us and lick us, our clothes, even want to bunt us and be playful with us. Bronco's favorite cow has become #920.  He calls her "Licker" because that is exactly what she does!  She follows him around the pen trying to lick his neck and even licked Heidi one day when she was out there. 

More tomorrow.  

Monday, May 25, 2015

Rain has not helped out this project, nor my attitude.

One important thing-- never start an outside project expected to take multiple weeks in rainy lousy crappy weather.  I am not a weather guru, but, I figure we have had to have received the most rain in a month in my entire life.  It has been raining cats & dogs for most of the month.  My fields are under water, as are most of the neighbors.  My wife's garden is a pond & we could probably plant fish in it for a while. The yard is also a mess, mud and standing water all over the place.  I am ready for it to be over.  We are the better part of 2 weeks behind on planting corn & if the rain does finally stop today, it would take a week before we could work some of the fields.  I am not happy about all this dang rain.

I feel like the rain has made my hair grow faster than normal.  I wear a hat dang near 100% of the time when I am at the barn, & usually have a pen behind my ear, or stuffed up inside my hat.  With the "Marty Deeks" style hair I currently sport, I pull a wad of hair out on the clip of the pen each time I pull the pen down to write something.  I hope these robots get going smoother so I can get my hair cut.

On a bright spot- the cows are flowing through the robots better.  I am still irritated at the movements that the robots make at times.  Charlie told me not to try to figure them out; it will just baffle me & that I am better off knowing they will do their job, if I keep the maintenance up on them.  My daughters and I did the daily maintenance today. I taught them which screens to get into to move the arm into the correct "service" position for daily cleaning, checking milk cups, hoses for cracks, and cleaning the screen the laser shines through.  I also had them move the "mothership" button so that we could loosen the milk cups to thoroughly inspect them.  Brin did the cleaning, I did the teaching and Ad did the final touch up & cleaned the laser screen & put them back into normal operation mode.  It is not that bad of a job when the kids are there to help me do it.  It had been boring the last few days, but with the kids there today, it went much faster and was a lot more fun. 

Overall I am impressed with the ease the cows are going through.  I am just not content with the irregularity of their visits and the milk production is down a long way.  On the milk production, I had expected it to be down, but not this far.  I had also expected it to start to pick back up within a week.  It is a week tomorrow and I am not seeing the increasing in milk yet.

Overall a good day, a decent end to the weekend yesterday, & hopefully DSC can get the cell modem hooked up so that I don't have to continue to sleep poorly and check to see if a robot has failed every few hours during the night.  If any of you ever put in robots on your dairy-- make sure the cell modem is in place prior to starting.  That single thing could get me a bunch more sleep.  Crap, I would probably even get to sleep in my own bed if I didn't have to go check the robot barn every few hours.

First milk pickup without glitches

Well, Aaron my milkman just left.  Aaron is great. He has a great attitude and is very professional in his job.  He is interested in my business and the progress of it.  He has been excited to see the robots in operation and, as soon as they were in, took extra time to go see the robot barn.   It was the first successful milk pick up without any hiccups.  I hope I am not speaking too soon, since the milk has not returned to the big tank from the holding tank where the milk is held while the milkman picks up the milk and while the big tank washes. 

I have had a number of visitors come over to see the robotic milking system.  It is fun to watch their expressions and listen to their comments.  Most people wish me the best of luck in this crazy undertaking. Some think that this proves I am as nutty as they have thought for years. 

I continue to guide the cows that are slow learners through the system multiple times a day.  Sometimes I watch the robot try to attach the milk cups to the teats and I am thinking the robot has lost its memory, literally.  It seems to go in all the opposite directions, and when it is in perfect position, instead of attaching, it restarts the scanning process.

I had some of my cousins up the last two days as it is Memorial Day today.  They, like me, grew up milking cows. It has been fun to relive those memories of getting kicked by the cows & dreaming of  something like a robotic milking machine.  I don't  think in my wildest dreams I would ever have imagined a robotic dairying system to look and be the way that this one is.  My cousins are fascinated by the process & the ability of the robot to locate the teat and attach the milk cup. 

Ballpark numbers today are around 80 percent of the cows now go through the system on their own.  20 percent of those are not going through as often as they should, and by the time they go through are leaking milk and have enlarged udders. 

The days continue to get better, partly because the cows are acclimating themselves to the machines & partly because I have moved the problematic animals into the other pen that we still milk through the parlor.  I had not figured I would have to move anywhere near as many animals as I have to the parlor pen. That is very discouraging.  I am hopeful that once I get the main herd trained and have a little more time to train cows that I will bring back down some of those cows moved into the parlor pen back to the robot pen. 

Anyway, today, as most of you, I have thought of my ancestors.  I come from a production agricultural background.  I have worked in agriculture all my life. I love the land, cows, dairy farming, and am proud to be involved in production ag.  I defend agriculture daily and hope that others will also. I see that as more and more people get generations removed from production ag that it is forgotten about the American farmer and what they have done for us from generations past.  We truly do have the most affordable & safe food supply in the world.  My hat goes off today to my past ancestors and all the past agricultural pioneers that forged our nation, culture, religions & lifestyles. 

Saturday, May 23, 2015

Not as smooth as I hoped

If things are going good, don't worry.  They will turn around and go to crap in a hurry.  Wednesday afternoon the new expensive air compressor that runs the robots, valves on the milk line, gates on the stalls, and pumps the milk to the tanks, shut off again from over heating.  This really makes me nervous, as it is not even hot weather yet.  But, I was still okay.  I even commented to a neighbor lady that has expressed great interest in this project that it was going smoothly (maybe I spoke too soon).

Then Wednesday evening running the cows through the robots didn't go very smooth.  As Jorge and I pushed the cows through, we noticed the robots seemed to be losing intelligence.  They weren't attaching as quickly & the prep time was really long.  We should have finished that night by 2 a.m.  We didn't finish until 4:30 a.m.  The next morning there were errors again on the robots and they shut down.  Charlie found the errors and reset them.  Then we started at about 6:45 that morning to run the cows through again.  As I went to clean the laser screens, which is what I do when the machines are not attaching quickly, I noticed that one had a lot of condensation inside.  I went and told Robert and he went and looked, thought through the possibilities, and then he and Mike, both Tech guys with the robot company, determined that the seal on the laser screen was bad.  So they went to get a replacement laser and swap out.  This put the cows further behind again.  We had planned on running cows through 3 times a day, possibly only 2 the first day, but now we are onto Thursday mid morning and we haven't gotten the cows through 3 times in any single day.  I am getting a bit nervous, running on low sleep amd large quantities of Mtn Dew & Oreos. 

Thursday's running the cows through went great.  The tech guys started leaving & I was feeling fine.  I was able to sit down with Charlie and look at some reports he uses, benchmarks he uses, and some of the herd monitoring stuff that he uses.  Once Friday came, I had the schedule to run cows through three times a day through the weekend.  Charlie left late Thursday evening and Mike was the tech guy there until Friday to get the final touches on. 

Friday the cows ran through great. Looking at percentages and cows that are going through on their own, I was feeling optimistic about this project. We have about 35% of the cows going through on their own without prompting from humans.  That number is growing each day.
Then the tech guys gave me the list --- Holy Carumba it was a long list.  They have concerns.  From the design not working & fear of freezing up in the winter, to the Jersey cows that I run with the Holsteins.  As we look at the records, the Jersey 1st lacation young cows are not being milked successfully.  This will prove to be the biggest challenge for the next few days. 

Anyway, as I sit here Saturday night, reminiscing about the weeks project, I have mixed feelings about how it is going.  I have had to move a bunch of the young animals out of the robot pen to be milked in the parlor.  I have moved some of the older sway bagged cows to pen one to be milked in the parlor. I have moved some of the cows with rear teats too close together or crossing to pen one to be milked in the parlor. 

Anyway, I am signing off for the night with mixed feelings about the robotic dairy experience. 
Tough day, tough week, worn out, haven't slept a wink in my bed. Hell, I haven't even seen the upstairs floor of my house since Tuesday morning at 3:30. 

I sure hope that I have a better day tomorrow on the Sabbath & that the Lord blesses me for doing minimal work tomorrow.  I could use the blessings & need the cows to start running through better, more regularly, and getting completely milked out.

Cows learn fast that robots milking them is cool

Running on about 7 hours of sleep in the last 90 hours has taken its toll.  I have fallen behind on updating my robotic experience.  I shall try to get caught up here quickly.

On Tuesday morning we tried to start milking through the new flat barn with robotic milking machines.  The plan was 7 a.m. to start.  We had cows lined up, people there, the tech people from Lely & most important, Charlie.  Charlie is a dairyman from Wisconsin.  Robots were installed on his family's dairy in 2000.  He is an expert.  He proved to be  very valuable on common sense, practical solutions & tips to a successful start up for the robotic dairy. 

We had been told to milk the cows normally through the parlor on Tuesday morning.  Therefore the cows udders were not too tight with milk by 7.  That proved to be a bit of a problem.  I also learned that with a robotic milking system exactness and preciseness is key.  The instructions stated that the camera has to be on a 6 degree slant downward.  That means exactly 6 percent. Crap, I didn't even know they made digital levels, but after the techs trip to Home Depot for one, and a wait to get the cows udders fuller and then fixing the cameras to have the precise angle with the digital level, we started milking a bit past noon. 


Holy cow, was it fun! Looking back, that is anyway.  At the time, I was sore, worn out & stressed.  We had to run all the cows into the stall and prep them by hand.  Then we "drove" the robot to its position below and in front of the front teats of the cow.  At that point we pushed the button, and WA- la!!!!  The robot started its laser scanning for the teats. It scanned up and down twice and then went to attaching the teat cups to the teats (see the video!).  It was a long day & by the night we were still working on getting the cows through for the second time.  We cleaned up the robots, ran a wash, cleaned the corrals and then it was onward and upward.

Second time through we didn't have to prep the cows, the teat scrubber brush prepped the cows teats by the coordinates from the previous milking.  Neither did we have to "drive" the robot on many cows... the robot "maps" the cows teats and udder from the previous successful attachments.  Of course, we did have to guide the robots on some of the cows.  It was so much faster than the first time through.  By this time we were now close to 4:30 Wednesday morning.  We took a break for a bit and planned to start up at 6 or so.  People were great.  We had a tech guy on hand for all the training. We had a Dairy Systems Company person there for the entire start up also.  I had my dad, kids, future son in law, workers (full and part time), and my wife to bring us snacks & food. 

Wednesday was a different day & night.  The 3rd milking went well. We progressed and the robots seemed to be building the database of maps of udders and teats.  The attachments went smoother and I was smiling through all my weariness.  Wednesday we took a bit longer break after the third milking and left the robot barn accessible to the cows so they could go through on their own.  We were down about 3.5 hours to wash, clean, scrape corrals and get ready for the night milking.  I will start the next blog with the Wednesday night milking---

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

First cow in Utah milked with Robotic milker

Holy cow. It was a good day yesterday.  Things ran smoothly.  Robert was able to get the floor readers working great, which had been a big concern for me.  We milked 4 cows yesterday.  Bronco had wanted one of his cows, and his favorite- Aston 502 June- to be the first cow through the robot, but while we were looking for her #1321 sneaked into the stall. So, I prepped the cow & we attached the robot.  It went so smooth, setting expectations up to tomorrow to be all the higher.  She was calm & eating while it milked her, then she left and we brought in another.   The next cow was #695 - she was a different story.  She kicked and nearly broke my wrist.  She was a pain and really didn't settle down until the end of the milking, but I noticed she was back in to eat within the hour.  The third cow we guided to the robot was a cow that had just had a big nice heifer calf yesterday morning.  She was as calm as could be.  The robot attached without issue & milked her out, sprayed the post dip, and she went on her way.  The 4th cow was a big Brown Swiss cross cow #701.  She was also very, very calm.  She produced 20+ lbs of milk and seemed to have a great time eating and being milked. 

All the valves are working to the tanks and the wash is up and working.  Today is going to be a great day.  The weather is the pits.  Rain is expected all day.  I have seen enough rain for the month of May and am ready for it to stop until the corn gets planted. 

Today we have a crew here and shifts set to have the start up go smooth.  I have high expectations & after yesterday I think the expectations for a smooth day are even higher.  Wow.
This is going to be great after it gets up and running.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Cows, like humans like the reward system.

Well, on Saturday morning, Brin, Ad, my father and I worked in the rain guiding the cows through the robot stalls once again.  I was quite impressed as it was a lousy day weather-wise, and my girls didn't whine one bit at being out there and helping.  My father and I were both soaked right through our jackets, hooded sweatshirts, shirts -- right down to skin.  The girls were also soaked badly.  We had plenty of snacks inside the flat barn for us to snack on as we worked with the cattle. Here in Lewiston we picked up a little over an inch of rain, per my cheap rain guage. 

It is getting easier to get the cows to go through the robot stalls.  They know there is a good tasting snack (similar to an Oreo for me) in there when they enter.  We were able to get 158 of 161 cows through Saturday.  The three sneaked through the gates and got past us.  We don't chase cows unless it is a necessity.  After we got the cows through and gates put away we all went in a had a good nap.

Sunday brought its own challenges.  From early in the morning robot #3, or Rich. as we have named that robot, has not been working. It kept having errors.  Number 3 may be the more important of the robots, since when it has its hopper full of grain, it won't call for the grain auger to run to fill the other hoppers for the other stalls.  I don't like bothering technicians after hours and especially on Sunday.  I had to have Johnny out most of the day.  Most things we tried were only temporary fixes.  It was frustrating.  I am glad I have the support of Johnny & Klark and their team as we get this project into phase 2 Tuesday & start milking.

 It was very interesting how smart cows are.  Most humans may not think that cows are that smart.  As soon as there is not a reward of grain for cows entering the stall, they stop coming.  Once Johnny's truck pulled up to fix things, the grain motors ran and there was a lot of activity once again around the flat barn.  Some cows figure things out in a hurry, just like humans.  It takes some cows a bit longer, just like humans. Some cows are more stubborn and not interested in progress nor change. You guessed it, just like humans.

The key principle of AMS is that when the cows come into the robot stall to get milked, they have to have the reward of good tasting, palatable grain.  Just like my wife training me to hang up the hand towels, an Oreo will usually do the job. Or like getting Bronco to eat his veggies, ice cream works. 
I love my cows. They are a ton of fun to watch and be around.  I sure hope our start-up tomorrow goes smoothly.  Sunday, as Bronco was with me most of the day, he reminded me of my younger self.  Walking through the cow pens, herding cows by himself.  He was a ton of fun to hang out with and just to watch him playing with the cows. 

Friday, May 15, 2015

Feed - what do cows prefer? I prefer Oreos

Today we started a lousy task.  We started to unload the grain bin where the feed goes that entices the cows into the AMS.  It is a good mix.  It is balanced and has what the cows need to maintain health at high production.  Feeding a balanced ration ought to be a good idea.  Yesterday with feed consultants it was decided that the feed we are feeding is not palatable enough.  It has too many fines in it, and it bridges in the grain bin.  All three of these things are the pits.  So, I made the analogy to a few people today while Bronco was with me that he and I don't stop what we are doing, get up from a nap, nor leave a balanced meal to go eat a balanced meal.  We leave what we are doing for Oreos or Snickers.  So, with this mindset we changed the feed that we are using to entice the cows to the AMS.  We are providing what I think cows prefer to eat.  How do I know? I don't. But, I think, from all the articles written, what most consultants agree on, & figuring out what smells the cows prefer, a different mix than the one I had in the grain bin is needed.  We, therefore, unloaded most of the feed from the bin and have a new load arriving tomorrow.  I hope the tedious task and the new load pay off for the effort today.  We set up an auger. Then we had to beat with a rubber mallet the sides of the grain bin to get the feed that was bridged to fall into the auger. We then loaded the grain mix into a loader bucket of one of our tractors and my dad dumped it in the feed bay to be used in the TMR (total mixed ration) that we feed the cows along the manger.  A TMR is just a casserole that has all the vitamins, minerals, protein, energy, etc. that the cattle need to be healthy. 

My feed guys really helped out a bunch yesterday and today.  They really went the extra mile, in visiting me, providing information, calling feed reps & smelling and tasting ingredients to see what possibly will work best.  It was short notice, a formula change & pelleting a mix to get delivered in a rush.  I appreciate their help.  I sure hope the cows go to the feed a little bit more eager than they do the current mix. 

We spent most of the mid day and early afternoon standing in the rain, guiding the cows through the robot stalls again to get them more accustomed to the sounds, surroundings & idea of going into the stall multiple times a day.  I was soaked through a jacket, hooded sweatshirt and two shirts right to the skin.  It didn't seem like a hard rain, but it was continuous and I was in it most of the time.  A great day still and the cows are going through easier each time.

We have a few cows, like #24, a Jersey who visits the stall to eat about 9 times every 3 hours.  Her and Bronco's favorite cow, #502- June is her name, are the two that visit the most on their own currently.  I think we had about a dozen or so cows that are frequenting the robot stall on their own. 

Kids helping get ready for robotic milking

Last night as I laid trying to sleep and again this morning as I fed the cows and the young calves, I thought about the last week of accomplishments.  The events that are most memorable are the ones in which my kids were involved. 

Addie, my third daughter, was out there one night with the construction crew calibrating the milk jars.  Addie is kind of a math wiz.  I claim she gets it from me, but since my wife has a BS degree in Math education, I give her most of the math wiz credit.  That night Addie helped with remembering the amounts in kilograms, filling, dumping, measuring & keeping us entertained.  The one part of that night that her and Brinlee, my second daughter, still laugh about, was when Johnny told them that he knows where they get their good looks from.  They looked like "yea, we've heard people tell my dad that we get them from our mother....".  Johnny said he knows they get them from their dad.  Then he paused a bit as the girls took in the thought of that.  Then Johnny said, "cause your mother still has hers!"  Those two have loved to tell that story to anyone who will listen. 

Brinlee has always been interested in becoming an NCIS special agent or working for the FBI.  As we were out there one early evening training cows to enter the AMS stall, she shocked me by saying that she could be a technician for Lely- the company that we bought our Astronaut 4A robotic milking system from.  She likes being around the cows, but not too close with them, and she thinks an AMS technician would be fun.  I have to admit that I would love her to do that, even more than an NCIS special agent.  I think its cool that my kids would like to be involved in some facet of agriculture.  I think agriculture runs in my blood. 

Bronco is out of school now for the summer.  He is at the age that he loves to ride the four wheelers to get parts, tools, check on things & get treats - crap, we are all at that age our whole lives, arent' we?  Anyway he is looking forward to being at the dairy as we plant corn next week and as we start up the AMS.  He is a great help at anything I am doing and this week has been out early almost every night to feed his calves and then come out to the flat barn so see what he can help me do. 
Life is great, and even better when I have my family around to help in the process of our adventures. 
As a good friend of mine signed his emails for a while, "life is short- work hard, play even harder."
It's going to be a great weekend.

Thursday, May 14, 2015

Very little left to do before attaching milkers

Santa Vaca.  That is one of my favorite sayings here on the farm.  I grew up saying holy cow quite often.  I lived a couple years in Spain, and became fluent in Spanish.  I now say santa vaca and oh how the workers smile & laugh when I say it.  They usually reply with a "holy cow" with a bad accent and chuckling at the literal translation of my phrase. 

Tonight when I got in I was covered in dung.  I actually took my shirt off & tossed it in the dumpster on the way in.  I have a lot of shirts because my brothers bring me their older shirts to wear to the barn, get dirty and toss.  My son, Bronco and I ran half of the pen 2 cows through the flat barn tonight to train them, get them accustomed to going through the robot box and prepare for our start up next week.  He had a blast! I had fun also. We were smiling most of the time, and I was pushing & prodding cows trying to guide them into the new alley-type entrance into the robot stall. 

It has been an amazing week.  This is the week I had thought would happen last week.  We made so much progress this week and the robots are running well.  They are feeding 24 hours a day and some of the cows have started to enter on their own.  It was fun sitting down at the computer this morning with John, from the robot company, and look at the cows that entered on their own during the nighttime hours. 

The tech guys were great this week.  I am sure I drive them nutty at times, as we have a big investment and are really anxious to get started milking cows through the flat barn.  I see so much potential and benefit from robotic milking.  I love the concept of cows not standing in a holding pen waiting to go into the parlor.  One of the biggest challenges we face on our dairy is lameness.  I sure think that robotic milking will improve that.  I called our state dairy extension specialist a couple of weeks ago and asked for his help in monitoring some of the progress, differences, benefits and areas that I need to focus on through this project.  I know he will be a big asset in helping.  He is very capable and is quite excited about the first AMS in the state going up.  It is actually the first AMS in the neighboring states also.  The technology is in its infancy here in the western united states, but has been going on successfully in Europe and north of us.  I hope I am not too optimistic.  I am a dreamer.   If this all pays off my dreams may even get bigger.

Wednesday, May 13, 2015

Wondering what my grandpas would think of robotic milkers

This morning I am sure we accomplished a few things.  This afternoon it seemed like we got lots of things working, finished & running almost smoothly.  The Tech guys were here until late again tonight with some of the dairy equip team that has been working on getting all the necessary lines, wires, cables & valves etc., in place to make this whole thing work.  As I left to go to the house with three of my kids, I breathed a sigh of relief that seems things are coming together.  At times for the past week I have had moments when I wondered how (not if) nuts I truly am to be being a big guinea pig in this area for AMS.  I had really hoped that Tom would have his robots up and working before I even had mine unloaded.  That was not the case, and the building and things came together at my place remarkably fast.  I also stated many times that getting cows milking was priority number one and some of the little things could be taken care of at our leisure.  Overall days like this afternoon have made me happy with the decision and I am sure looking forward to starting to milk with the AMS. Three of my kids were out helping to train the cows to passing through the robots and eating at the robot station.  All three were happy and loved being out there participating in the process.  Most of us had Mountain Dews and Oreos.  There are few better ways to celebrate than with an Oreo. 

We had some of the inspectors from the state out today.  They have been great to work with, and seem excited to learn the technology that is involved in the AMS.  They have been involved all along throughout the process.  I think we all feel that the ability to produce high quality and safe milk is even more probable with an AMS than traditional ways.

The last few days I wonder what my 2 grandpas would think if they were here and could see the concept behind robotic milking systems.  I think that they were of the mindset that grandkids were the best milking systems.  I think they would be blown away by the set up, milk quality inspection ability, technology & functionality of the AMS.  I would love to have them here again for an afternoon to watch this with me.  I can visualize each of them in their own unique way standing in the doorway of the flat barn watching the robots milk the cows as the cows come to the stall on their own.  I can almost hear them talking to me and each other, awe struck as they reminisce about the way that they used to do it.  I think they would both be happy with the progress that has been made to produce milk more efficiently. 

At the end of the night, we have cows very interested in entering the stall to eat.  The cows are entering amazingly well.  I am certain that letting the cows adjust and "train" to the robot stations will be well worth the time come start up day for the robotic milking system.  Looking forward to early next week when we actually will milk cows through the flat barn.

6 calves born on one day

Here on the dairy we don't even average a calf a day.  Yea, sometimes in the early summer and fall we may get close to 20 calves per month.  So, it was an odd day a couple days ago when I had 4 calves already born by 4:30 in the morning.  A bull calf out of the best of the four, and three heifer calves.  I was thinking it was going to be a great day.  By 8:15 we had a bull calf born out of a jersey heifer & my odds were still pretty good.  Then a little past lunch time there was another bull calf born.  Six calves in one day.  When Addie, my daughter that feeds the youngest calves, came home from school & went to the barn she was in awe that we had as many calves born in one day as we usually get in a busy week. 
I need to get my hair cut badly.  The days have been full and I haven't taken the time to go see the lady who cuts my hair.  I am noticing it takes a lot more shampoo to wash my hair when it is this long.  I feel that I look like Marty Deeks (from NCIS Los Angeles) with the long hair, but my kids assure me that I don't--- yet.

Tuesday, May 12, 2015

Cows are eating at the robots

Holy cow what a couple long days.
The Tech service people are out helping with the last items on getting the robots ready for use.  Robert feels we are making a boatload of progress.  We are, it's just there appears to be many more boats out there.   It really is more than 2 steps forward one step back.  We make lots of steps forward, sometimes even a leap or two. Then we seem to have a half step back.  We can't seem to get the AMS to work for an extended period of time quite yet.  We either have water lines flipping off, that weren't tight enough, or we have errors on the air compressor and we don't know what caused it.  Overall, it is super to see cows walking through the robots and eating the grain mix.   For the most part the cows are extremely curious and are up next to the entry and exit gates sniffing, licking & waiting to get the grain mix.
We have cows that are calmer than most places I feel.  We get comments on how calm the cows are.  We love our cows to come up to us and lick, sniff & play around with us as we lean on the fences of their pen.
I have been trying today to figure out the chemicals that will be used in the AMS.  There are multiple chemicals and I am trying to understand them all.  I feel finally this evening that I have a good feel for what they are all used for and which ones I will run through the AMS.  I am sure I have driven my chemical supply guy, Curtis, nuts today and yesterday with all the questions.  I will try to explain what all the chemicals are and how they work on the AMS.
There are four main chemical pumps that get mixed with water and run from the central unit to the robot units and clean various parts.
1) There is the green "brush-dis" it is a solution that is used as the predip.  It is sprayed on the roller brushes that moisten, brush, clean, prepare, kill bacteria,  wipe & dry the teats prior to milking.  We are using a hydrogen peroxide based teat dip that has a quick kill time for the bacteria.
2) There is the blue "alkaline" which in essence is the soap.  It will go through the entire system multiple times a day and wash the milking machine, receiving jar & entire milk line.  We are using the product recommended by the robot company.  It is a cleanser that is great with high temperature water.
3) There is the red "acid," it does the same as the alkaline, and we will use the recommended also for use in really high temperature water.
4) There is the yellow "sanitizer,"  this one as had me confused and I may miss speak as I explain this, but I think that finally  I have it understood.
I had been very confused by this as different people answered my questions with terminology that I was not understanding.  As with most big companies the acronyms and terminology of the AMS company is a bit confusing.  I recall when I worked for a large company in the handbook, or new employee guide there was over 7 pages of acronyms, terminology and secret code- not too secret- I just threw that in.
We will use a hydrogen peroxide that does not foam for this.  The hydrogen peroxide is mixed with water. This solution rinses the receiver jar & hoses whenever there is milk separated to be fed to the calves.
5) There is a post dip that is sprayed each teat after milking.  We are using a 1% Iodine solution with roughly 10% emollients, skin conditioners & skin health products.  The iodine will kill all bacteria and germs that want to be on the teat.  The skin conditioning products help the teats not chap, burn, nor be injured from the iodine.
It has been a great day of learning, training cows & watching the cows actually eat at the robot stations.  Cows are healthy, Family is all here tonight and life is dang good.

Long day on the dairy with cows through the robots for the first time- to eat only

Wow.  A long day at the dairy today.  It made me think about life.  It was a day when we finished a bunch of tasks.  Some days when you look back at the things you accomplished that day there is a lot to see.  Those are great days.  Some other days, I go to the house with the thought that "Goll, did we get much done today, or did we just twiddle our thumbs?"  Some of those days there is still a lot accomplished, but it just may not be as noticeable as days like today. 

I feel like a great way to get on someone's good side is to go the extra mile.  Today I felt like the companies that are helping with the robot installation actually want to see cows milked through them also.  Mike, Robert, & Johnny stayed until about 10:30 p.m. working on trying to solve some issues to get cows to flow through the AMS.  I am impressed with actions such as those.  I think most people are impressed when others go the extra mile to help solve problems. 

I have had some of my uncles come and ask about the project.  I love seeing them impressed & bring back their friends to show them the whole concept of AMS.  I feel like Jan is genuinely happy for the project and really wants it to succeed.  He would be a great tour guide if we decide to have an open house for this project.  That is another thing that really impresses me, when someone shows genuine interest and has genuine desires to see someone else's project succeed. 

I purchased a 300 gallon tank from my Uncle Jan.  It is a cute little tank. We have put it up on legs approximately 30 inches in the air.  It is where the milk is directed while the larger tank is being emptied by the milkman and washed.  Once the bigger tank is cleaned and ready to receive milk again, the milk flows by gravity from the 300 gal tank into the larger tank where it is cooled and stored until the next day when the milk man arrives again.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Brown Swiss calf

April 21st.  We had a big great looking Brown Swiss heifer calf born today out of cow #5300.  It is kind of odd how excited I can get over a calf, but this one is really cool.  It looks great & I have always loved Brown Swiss cows & calves.

Here on our dairy my kids feed the young calves each night and even some weekend mornings.  Raising our kids on a dairy farm has been a huge blessing in our lives & we often get complimented on how hard of workers and strong our kids are.  We attribute much of that to the daily tasks that they accomplish here on the dairy farm. 

The Robots were moved into place in the flat barn built to house the AMS.  It is anticipated that it will take close to 3 weeks to get them up and start using them.  We are hoping to have the feed system into place that we can set the robots to "training" mode.  That will allow the cows to walk through the robot, and begin to know there is food at the robot.  Hopefully allowing the cows to get comfortable around the new flat barn will make for a better day when we start milking the cows with the robots. 
We are one of the first dairies in this area to invest in AMS.  Tom, our neighbor, was the first to get robots, and understands them much better than I.  Tom has been a huge help in calming my concerns as we start down this process. 
I don't profess to be an expert or even know a whole bunch about robotic milking systems, but I will try to explain it a bit to anyone who may be reading and want to know more about it. 

 All of our cows have a transponder on one of their front legs.  The transponder is an activity monitor and helps us manage the cows based on the activity that they are showing verses their normal activity baseline.  When the cow enters the stall to the side of the robot, it will read this transponder & know from the settings we have in the computer whether or not she is allowed to get more grain mix & be milked at this time.  If she is allowed, the grain mix will start to fill the feed bowl and the milking process will start. 

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Robots arrive

On April 20th my life took a turn - hopefully for the better. 

I am a 5th Generation Dairy farmer.  Up to this day, I have never posted a facebook, tweet, snap.... or anything like those.  But, I always figured if this day actually arrived that I would start a blog to keep track of some of the events happening in my life dairying as we transition from a conventional dairy farm operation to an Automatic Milking System (AMS), commonly referred to as robotic milkers.

At 8 a.m. the semi pulled in with 3 robotic milkers on it.  I had seen my neighbor Tom unload his AMS a week earlier in a neighboring town.  I had been waiting anxiously since watching Tom unload his at his dairy. 


     I was actually very nervous unloading the robots.  My telehandler had broken & so I was using my Case IH mx120 with the bale forks on it.  It is not as easy to see, and one or two of the forks are bent.  These are the most expensive items I have ever unloaded.  All went pretty smooth unloading them.  I borrowed my Uncle Kimber's forklift and once the robots were on the ground moved them over and into place with the forklift.  It went well & the forklift was able to put them amazingly close to where they needed to go. 

It ended up being a very productive day as we got the robots off the trailer and moved into place in the flat barn where they go. 

Tomorrow I will give a brief history of the decision to make this big investment.