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Robot dairy farming is here

Co-Owner Todd Webb talks Wednesday about the advantages of a robot dairy east of Declo.

DECLO — More than 1,000 dairy cows will move out of Heglar Creek Dairy’s conventional barn in September and into a new robotic milking barn where they will sleep on waterbeds.

In the voluntary milking system, the Holsteins will decide when to relax, eat or be milked by one of 18 robots.

“The biggest benefit for the cows is taking the human element out of the dairy,” said Todd Webb, co-owner of the dairy. “It reduces stress for them.”

For producers, he said, the benefits include increased production and cows that live longer with fewer injuries.

Todd co-owns the dairy, still under construction, with two brothers, Mark and Scott Webb and neighbor, Mike Garner.

In a conventional dairy, cows spend four to six hours being driven to the barn, in holding pens and navigating sometimes slick concrete in the winter, which can mean injuries for the animals.

“When a cow is pushed into a system, it’s a stress for the cow,” Todd said.

At a conventional dairy, the cow may be pushed three times a day to the barn, Todd said. But in a barn with a robotic dairy, the animal chooses how often to be milked, which may be from a couple times to five times a day.

Living in bovine luxury

The Webb brothers grew up at the family dairy and in the past few years diversified their holdings to include Heglar Creek Electric, Heglar Creek Cattle, Raft River Sod and Snake River Robotics, as a Lely Robotic Equipment dealer.

“I was at a point where I was feeling discouraged about where dairy was heading,” Scott Webb said. “This makes me feel excited again.”

With the new system, the cow decides when to go to the robot milking station, where she will be fed special grain pellets as the process begins.

Robot dairy farming is here

An 18-robot dairy is being built Wednesday east of Declo.

“It’s like candy to them,” Todd said.

But, if the cow just wants an extra snack and it hasn’t been long enough since she’s been milked, she is immediately turned back to her living quarters that surround the robot. Each of the 18 robots will milk 60 cows. Wearing a collar that’s recognized by the robot, she will walk onto a platform to be weighed and milked. A sensor will locate each teat on her udder, which will be sterilized, stimulated and the milking cups attached one-by-one to the milking robot.

The robot will also take her temperature. If there is infection or blood in her milk, that milk will be sent to a different tank. If the animal needs antibiotics, she will be treated without being removed from her living quarters. Her feed will be adjusted according to her milk production.

“Every cow is treated as an individual,” Todd said.

If the robot detects she is in a heat cycle, the cow will be released to a holding pen to be collected by the breeder. Not having to disturb hundreds of cows to catch 20 that need to be bred allows the whole herd to be calmer, which helps production, Todd said.

In the living quarters, the cow will have a feeding area and a stall complete with a waterbed.

“The waterbeds are more comfortable,” Todd said. “The mattresses have water pockets that keep the cows from developing sores on their legs.” A little compost will be placed on the surface of the mattresses.

For comfort, a layer of rubber will be added to the floor where the cows eat and the roof over the barn will eliminate the constant struggle to keep the bedding dry.

After milking, the liquid will be piped through a tunnel to two 8,000 gallon tanks. The dairy fills 1.5 tanks per day.

All of Heglar’s milk goes to Gossner Foods.

The condensers used to cool the milk will produce a lot of heat, which will be transferred to the robot rooms to provide heat in the winter and fans will keep the animals cool in the summer.

Cows milked by robots tend to live longer, Scott said, and they have higher pregnancy rates and ultimately produce more milk.

“Having less stress shows in their production and in better health, just like it does in people,” Scott said.

The costs for the robots can vary depending on how many are purchased. For one or two machines, smaller dairies will pay $200,000 per robot, for a larger dairy needing more the cost may shrink to $160,000. The costs can also vary by equipment ordered, like a scale, Todd said.

More time to manage cows

The dairy is one of a handful in Idaho to switch to the robotic milking machines and it is in an even smaller group of large dairies to convert.

Previously, the robotic milking equipment was more suited to smaller dairy farms, where the owners are tied to the milk barn 24 hours a day, seven days a week, Todd said.

“It is a quality of life thing for them,” Todd said.

The technology was developed more than 25 years ago but only hit the east coast about 11 years ago. As the technology became better, it became more feasible for larger dairies, he said.

Robot dairies are here

Automated milking is becoming more common at larger dairies.

Heglar Creek Dairy will move about half of their milk cows to the new barn this fall but the dairy’s 10-year goal is to convert the entire dairy to robotic milking.

“The No. 1 driver for us to convert is labor,” Todd said. “We will see 60 to 70 percent of our savings in labor.”

Over the past few years, he said, getting and retaining milking employees has become more challenging. Other industries like construction tend to compete for the same laborers. And, Scott said, even careful employee training doesn’t eliminate human unpredictability, which can affect the health of the animals.

The company’s 2,000-cow conventional barn employs 16 people to milk the cows. The new dairy will need only four employees to oversee the robots, essentially cutting labor needs in half for the 1,080 cows.

Robot dairy farming is here

An 18-robot dairy is being built Wednesday east of Declo.

The new jobs will require a higher skill level than a traditional milking job.

“Right now we spend our time managing people, not cows,” Todd said. “The dairy will take on a new dynamic and we will have more time to manage the cows, and we’ll get better results.”

Scott sees the shift to robotics as a big part of the future for the industry.

“I don’t think it will ever completely replace conventional dairies,” he said. “But when the benefits start being noticed and it gets cheaper, more dairymen will convert.”

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