Couple milk their way to successMinnesota farmers to use robotic method with cows.
By: Mikkel Pates, Forum Communications Co.
CHANDLER, Minn. — It’s been called Middleroad Acres since the 1930s.
That’s because the farmstead is bisected by a township road. But Bill and Merri Post, who run the 120-cow milking operation, also will be in the high-tech fast lane before Christmas, with the help of milking robots. The Posts are among dozens of farms in the region to use the systems, compared with none five years ago.
It’s a big step for Bill, 44, who has been milking since he was 10 years old in stanchion barns. The couple lives on property that has been in Bill’s family since the 1930s. His older brother, Ben, farms a mile and a half away and also dairies. The Posts have been thinking about robotic dairying for about eight years.
For a couple in their 40s, it was a question of whether to expand or get out of dairy. Milking in the stanchion — kneeling and bending — had been increasingly hard on Bill’s body. “We knew we needed to do something different,” he says. “We needed to do something that helped our cows. This fit.”
“We thought, do we go into beef? What do we do?” Merri says. Beef would be a problem because they wouldn’t have sufficient pasture.
Bill and Ben farm about 1,200 acres, with corn, soybean and alfalfa in rotation. Most of it is owned within the family.
“I asked my husband, ‘Walk with me through the day that we would sell our dairy cows.’ And we realized that wasn’t an option for us,” Merri says.
The Posts were sold on robotics when Gorter’s Clay and Dairy Equipment in Pipestone, Minn., the local Lely Inc. equipment distributor, took them to Canada to look at a robotic dairy in 2007.
“I thought everybody should have two,” Bill says, smiling. “The way the cows worked with the robots. The cows were very mild-mannered. They went to get milked when they wanted to go. Nobody was chasing them around.”
Merri, who grew up five miles away on a dairy farm in Edgerton, Minn., agreed. She is a licensed practical nurse who in 2002 took an off-farm job as a coordinator with the Southwest Minnesota Dairy Profit Group, part of a nonprofit grant program through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Bill likes working with one herdsman and has had the same one for more than 10 years. If he had many more cows, he’d be managing people, and not the cows, he says.
“It’s just going to help us manage light years even better,” Merri says.
The machines do a number of things that ordinary equipment and employees don’t. For example, they check electrical conductivity of the milk so the dairyman catches the onset of mastitis disease more quickly. The cow is weighed every time she milks. Rumination collars monitor how much the cow chews her cud to watch for sickness. The collars also monitor how much the cow moves around, which indicates whether she is in heat.
“I assume the routine is going to change dramatically,” Bill says of the transition. “Right now, we spend five hours a day milking — 6 a.m. and 5 p.m. With the robot, we’ll still be in the barn, still feeding, but we won’t have the milking chores. The milking will take place all day long, except for a half hour a day when we’re shut down for cleaning, and analyzing data coming from the robots.”
If Bill has to be gone for a day, milking becomes a chore that Merri can handle.
The Posts have the robotic dairy set up so expansion can be done more easily if their children want to come home to join the business. “If they don’t, it’s something Bill and I can handle. It’s something that was really important to us.”
Sarah is 17, and Jacob is 15. Both are involved in 4-H and have cattle and horse projects. Both love the farm, but will pursue college and an off-farm job before coming home. Each of them actually owns a cow in the barn, so they learn the business and have a vested interest.
“They get paid for milk off that cow and for any calves — bulls or heifers out of that production,” Merri says. “Their breeding decisions matter.”
“I don’t want the kids to come home because we have robots,” Bill says. “I want them to come home if they want to dairy. There’s times when milk prices are tough and you have to enjoy things other than the income. Sometimes you get up in the morning and see a newborn calf. That might be the best part of your day.”