Despite Challenges, Va. Farm Happy With Robotic Milkers

6/14/2014 7:00 AM
By Jane W. Graham Virginia Correspondent

PULASKI, Va. — Can a person really milk a cow sitting at a computer desk? Or even while sleeping the night away? Yes is the answer at Kegley Farms in Pulaski, Va., where a computerized robotic milking system has been operating since last October.

Bill Kegley, patriarch of the family who established the business in 1967, recently explained the workings of the dairy operation owned by his son, Martin, and his son-in-law, Jeff Reeves.

Kegley said the land is owned by Kegley Farm LLC, and he is the principal owner of that entity. The land is leased to the dairy operation, he said.

“The biggest challenge was trying to decide where the location was going to be and then getting it done,” Kegley said of the new barn.

The new dairy barn sits on a hill in the middle of the diversified farm, with scenic views in every direction. The 240-cow milking herd is housed in the new barn in stalls equipped with gel-filled mattresses. The bedding on top of the mattresses is composted cow manure, which is then recycled to the composting area when stalls are cleaned.

The barn is divided in half, with two milking stalls on each side. Milking occurs automatically as the cows come to the milking station. A device on each cow’s neck is programmed to be read by the computer and can be followed on the monitor in Danny Huff’s office. Huff, the farm herdsman, has been on the farm for a number of years. Huff works with the cows, and the robotic milkers and computer system.

The information from the system is so complete that milking continues around the clock, even when no human is present.

A three-way gate sorts the cows entering the milking stall using information on each animal’s collar. The device itself is located on the side of the cow’s neck; however, a weight hangs from the collar to hold the collar in its proper place.

The computer directs the milking apparatus from the time a cow enters the milking stall until she exits it. While she is eating grain ration, the robotic arm swings into action, directing brushes to the cow’s utter. Each teat is washed and rinsed by two roller brushes that then clean themselves. The teat cups are then attached to the cow, guided automatically by lasers, and milking begins. A separate line runs from each quarter, taking the milk through the system to its destination: the huge milk tank outside the barn.

The transponder on each collar does much more than simply start the milking process. It identifies the animal, records how much milk is produced in each quarter of the udder, the health of the udder and the cow, and dispenses the amount of feed the individual cow needs. It also records the cow’s activity, helping determine when she is in heat.

The herd is a closed one as the farmers raise their own replacement heifers from the milking herd using AI sires. Kegley said the herd number is limited to 240 head, the number the four robots can milk. Each robotic unit milks 60 animals. The dairy herd, when milking was done conventionally, numbered as high as 320 cows, Kegley said.

Huff said that half the cows being milked are first-calving heifers, and noted the oldest cow in the herd is 9 years old. He and Kegley remember having even older cows when milking was done conventionally.

So far, Kegley and Huff feel the new system is a success. They said the cows are quiet and content. One of the early challenges when they started using the robots was helping the old cows learn a new way of being milked. They used a routine of moving the cows through the system three times a day until they became familiar with the new way.

The two men said they find introducing newly freshened heifers to the milking line is easier since they do not have to relearn what is expected of them.

They also employ two fewer employees.

Cow comfort is a big part of the barn’s design. Curtains on the sides of the building can be raised and lowered as conditions warrant. Overhead fans move air through the barn, keeping the animals cool and providing a soothing background hum. Each end of the barn is equipped with a huge roller brush that a cow can walk under to have her back scratched and cleaned. There is also a robotic brush that moves in front of the feed trough, brushing silage back into the trough. It is the only thing in the barn that in any way resembles what most people think a robot might look like. It is a big, round machine that moves along in front of the cows.

“I think it’s a lot easier on the cows,” Huff said of the robotic system. “They are not spooked being chased around twice a day.”

The average daily milk production is 77 pounds per cow, although Kegley said they would like to make it 80 pounds.

In addition to the milk produced, the dairy operation is able to sell some of its heifers to other dairymen and all of its steer calves when they weigh between 600 and 800 pounds. The farm also has a closed Angus beef herd.

Kegley predicted they will be able to sell some composted manure in the future when their supply exceeds their need.

Both men say they are learning the system as they go about.

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