10/19/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor
ELLIOTSBURG, Pa. — More than a year ago, Shawna Weller was told she needed to come up with a science fair project. Her idea was to evaluate the production changes resulting from the new Lely robotic milking system on her father’s dairy farm in Elliotsburg.
Weller’s research is more than just a science fair project, it’s about taking a hard look at whether a robotic milking system really does pay off.
A Lely A4 robot has been installed and operating successfully for more than a year at the farm.
“No one had any information as to milk production to what you are really going to get out of it,” she said. The impetus for installing the system had been more about quality-of-life issues.
The teacher warned her that analytical projects never win, but she persisted and the teacher agreed she could pursue the idea.
In less than two weeks, she heads to the National FFA Convention to present that science fair project as part of the National FFA Agriscience Fair contest on Oct. 30. She is a member of the West Perry FFA chapter.
Her father, Dennis Weller, operates Weller Dairy, a 320-acre dairy farm with a 60-cow Holstein herd. He raises corn, wheat, barley, soybeans, alfalfa and grass hay, which produce enough feed to meet the needs of the herd, plus some extra for marketing.
Shawna Weller and her brother, Jonathan Weller, help out part time at the farm. Their mother is Billie Jo Deiter.
Shawna Weller said the inspiration for her project came from reading several farm features on families who reported large increases in milk production after switching to robotic milking systems.
Many of these farms also had major management, ration or facility changes. The Wellers did not. The only dramatic change was the robot and the increased movement of the cows. The nutritionist and other farm advisers remained the same.
Shawna Weller said that because robotic milking systems are expensive investments, she wanted to see if the robot would pay for itself.
“We were upgrading some, but not much,” her father said, which eliminated the production bump from improved cow comfort. The cows are each producing around 80 pounds of milk a day, a 10-pound increase from before.
The pair worked together collecting data on different elements of the dairy operation comparing pre-robot and post-robot numbers. Shawna Weller said she wishes there had been more post-robot data, but at the time her project was due she had only five months of data after what she called the settling-in period for the cows to adjust to the new system. However, with the help of her statistics teacher, she began to crunch the numbers.
Dennis Weller said it was great to see the data come together to produce the results. The data included individual and herd DHIA records for when the cows were in the tie-stall barn. Data from Lely’s Time for Cows (T4C) program was used for the post-robot numbers. Farm milk checks, electric bills, labor costs and feed costs were also evaluated.
The Wellers say it has taken some getting used to, but robotic milking has proved to be the right choice for their dairy farm.
The construction project began with a retrofit of the existing tie-stall barn, gutting the existing floor and stalls, and adding the new milking area.
“This barn is modeled after Doug Seipt’s of Keystone Farm,” Dennis Weller said.
He said the construction phase was a crazy time because the cows had to be kept on pasture and milked for eight weeks in a sectioned-off portion of the tie-stall barn and then in a machine shed.
It was not all bad, however, because the cows needed to learn how to walk to get feed and water, and be milked. Previously, they were used to everything coming to them.
“It was interesting around here,” Dennis Weller said of the exhausting time.
After that, adjusting to the A4 robotic system was relatively easy for the cows. After two weeks, most of them had settled into a routine.
One difference between an A4 robot and earlier robotic designs is the cows walk straight through the system with no turns.
Earlier designs had cows entering at an angle and then turning to reach the robot and be milked, which lengthened their adaptation time.
It was also a learning time for Dennis Weller. Because he had never worked in a free-stall system, he had to change how he cares for his cows.
He said he still spends a lot of time with the cows and working on the farm, but he’s no longer tied down by six hours of milking time.
Planting and harvest season are a little smoother because the family can keep working instead of shutting down the crop operations to milk the cows. What took several hours, he said, is now just a half hour to feed and check on the cows.
“Now everything is adjustable,” Dennis Weller said. “It makes a lot of difference. You are not as pressed in the field.”
Shawna Weller’s analysis showed that the robotic milking system was a good investment because it increased milk production and saved on feed costs. Her data showed a jump in income of more than $7,000 per month.
Dennis Weller said they have to dig into the numbers more, but this year, savings on feed costs have really improved the farm’s bottom line.
He said it’s because the cows are fed to their production needs, not overfed.
A robotic milking ration begins with a percentage of the grain removed from a balanced ration. The object is to “reward” the cows with the balance of their ration needs when they are milked. In short, cows are getting a ration that caters to their production needs.
The other interesting change is how milk production curves are straightening out. Traditional production lines have cows reaching their peak milk production around 60 days and then dropping off until they are ready for dry off.
Dennis Weller said he has seen production peak, then remain much higher throughout the lactation. A couple of cows have been problematic when they are due to dry off because their production is too high, he said.
He said he also likes to check to see how his cows compare with other dairies on the Lely system. The T4C has a benchmark program, which is its version of a social networking system. Producers can “friend” others and compare their farms’ production statistics.
Once a week, data from the farms are uploaded to the system for comparison.
Shawna Weller said the whole project has been a great experience. First, it was a way to turn something she was passionate about into a classroom project. Second, it helped her with many of her classes. In addition to getting a good grade in her science class, she said she excelled in her statistics class, mainly because she was able to use the math skills in a practical way.
And, as she starts her first year at Juniata College, Shawna Weller said she knows where she would like her career to go: back to the farm.