Northeast Iowa dairy farm shifts to robotic milking

Productivity rises despite smaller herd, but technology is pricey

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For any farmer who works with livestock, getting away for a few hours or even a day from the business of farming is extremely difficult.

Yet Mark Hosch was finally able to get to Ames back in December to watch his son graduate from Iowa State.

Instead of worrying about how his 120-cow operation at the Round Hollow Farm in Dubuque County is holding up in his absence, Hosch just had to click on his Smartphone.

Until last December, Hosch and his wife, Karen, had a more traditional milking parlor, with 145 cows and two consistent milking times each day.

“Three in the morning and three in the evening,” Hosch said of their schedule.

In early December, they started the process of converting to operating the farm with the help of two Lely Astronaut robots from a dealer in Pella.

Hosch said as he came to his decision, some of the early reviews of robotic farming in Wisconsin did not persuade him that this was the ideal time. Yet he saw one operation in nearby Bellevue and, last fall, another robotic dairy farm in Monona and toured a barn there.

He pointed at one cow in the five-minute milking session.

“She’s got a transponder on the side of her neck. It shows where the teats should be, what the udders should be shaped like and it uses the laser to pick up,” Hosch said.

The time to ascertain the exact dimensions of each cow can vary as the lasers search for the udders. For some cows, the lasers pick up and the machine latches on right away. For others, the machine needs a minute or more to hook on.

Multiple cameras track the process around each robot.

“It remembers the last 30 times the teats were seen for each cow and it uses that information to make it faster,” Hosch said.

Hosch recognizes he is still in the early stages of his transition to robotic milking. The total livestock is cut to 120, as each robot can handle about 60 cows per day.

Yet Hosch said their productivity is about on par with the previous volume of approximately 145 cows. The major difference is that the milking is done on the cow’s schedule and not when the farmer is available.

“It’s more management now,” Hosch said. “All of this information, it’s at your fingertips and you can take better care of the cows.

“These cows are going to last a lot longer. There is no fighting among the cows. Come in here, milk, get their feed.

“You’ll get older cows and higher-producing cows.”

It is not an inexpensive transition. Hosch said each robot costs about $200,000 plus the expense of an addition to his barn to track the animals.

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