MOHRSVILLE, Pa. — An automated dairy feeding system that does just about everything but fill silos helped the Allen Grube family weather a crisis that jeopardized the future of the fourth generation Berks County family farm.
The crisis arrived four years ago when family patriarch Allen suffered a massive stroke. The stroke left his mind — and sense of humor — intact, but it put him into a wheelchair and made it impossible to help with farmwork.
Allen’s son, Jay, went from sharing the workload with his dad to doing — or trying to do — the work of two people. When the workload means the care and feeding of 60 Holstein milking cows, plus dry cows and replacement heifers... well, that’s a lot of workload.
There’s field work, too. Jay cuts 45 acres of haylage for two of the farm’s silos, and hires a custom operator to fill the other two silos with 45 acres of corn silage. Then another 250 acres is cash cropped for hay, soybeans, corn for grain and barley. Oh, and there’s Grube’s Dairy Store 5 miles away in Shoemakersville. Jay’s wife, Dorie, manages the store, which they opened in 2012, but Jay helps out once a week with pasteurizing and processing about 300 gallons of whole milk from the family herd.
The Grubes had four options:
• Sell the herd. But Jay likes cows and he likes to stay busy. He and his dad like their tie stalls. The cows are content and clean and average about 80 pounds a day. Somatic cell count averages around 150,000, and the DHIA herd average is right around 24,000 pounds. It’s too good a herd to sell.
• They could hire a helper. But Allen didn’t like the idea of having his son dependent on a hired hand who may or may not show up on any given Monday. Or Tuesday, or Wednesday, etc.
• Automate with robotic milkers. The robots they checked cost about $200,000 and with their setup wouldn’t have saved that much labor.
• Automate the mixing and delivery of the cows’ feed.
In his search for a solution, Jay came upon Valmetal, a Canadian company with 500 automated feeding systems in Canada and another 300 in other parts of the world. When the system was installed three years ago on the Grube farm, it was the first in Pennsylvania and the first to serve a tie stall herd.
The key part of the Valmetal Autoration Pro system is actually invisible. It is a computer program housed in a touch screen that monitors the scales, belts and motors that are the mechanical parts of the system. Autoration mixes feed twice daily, and delivers it to the cows at approximately six-hour intervals four times a day, beginning at 3 a.m. When the feed lands on the tiled alleys in front of the cows, it’s fresh. The girls don’t pick through it to avoid the dried out parts because there are no dried out parts.
There’s none of the waste that goes with loading carts for twice-a-day feedings, then sweeping the alleys of the leftovers before the next go-round with the cart.
The system conveys haylage and corn silage from four concrete stave silos to a bin where it is mixed with minerals and dietary supplements. From the mixing bin, the total mixed ration moves on overhead conveyor belts to the cows. Allen pointed out that TMR has been a management strategy on the farm since 1986.
The first time the system was turned on, Jay said he was worried about what the cows would think when their feed started suddenly falling from the sky. When the belts started up for the second feeding, he said the cows perked up, looked up and ate up. He said there wasn’t an immediate jump in production, but by the end of the first month, he said individual daily averages had increased by about 5 pounds with no added feed cost.
Jay figures Autoration saves him about four hours of labor every day. He figures he’ll save even more work when a new heifer barn is completed. When the heifers are moved out of the main barn, he plans to install another 26 tie stalls in preparation for an eventual increase in herd size. That will put the total number of tie stalls at 80.
Currently, he’s milking 60 cows in 54 tie stalls, which means six cows get switched in and out of tie stalls for milking. That’s a labor intensive part of the milking operation, and the switching puts a damper on individual production. By giving the switch cows permanent homes, he’ll save labor and get a bit more out of each cow.
Jay’s mother and wife help with the twice-a-day milking. Each member of the three-person milking crew milks five cows at a time with standard milkers that feed into a pipeline system. The plan going forward is to switch to automatic takeoff milkers and have each crew member milking 12 cows at a time.
As part of the automated mixing/feeding program, the Grubes upgraded the barn’s electrical system then added the Autoration Pro control panel, software, motors and belts for a total cost of $80,000. The system made it possible for Jay to continue dairying without hired help.
While he knew from the beginning that it was going to save him a lot of work, he was anxious about navigating the control panel screen. He did punch the wrong icon three times in the first few months. Each mishap was cleared up with a call to the Valmetal 24/7 help line, where techs have a direct connection to customers’ systems. Jay wasn’t billed for the calls. A Valmetal rep said company policy is to offer free service calls for the first five years after installation. Software updates will be provided free for the life of the system.
Jay said he found bonuses he didn’t even know were part of the system. He hadn’t realized, for example, the extent of the Autoration inventory control feature. Instead of constantly eyeballing bin contents, he can see from the touchscreen when he’s running low on a mineral or other supplement.
The system is designed to add water automatically to the TMR as it’s being mixed. Jay said he samples the silo contents — haylage varies a bit, corn silage not so much — and punches his moisture numbers into the control panel and the system figures out how much water to add.
With automated mixing and feeding, and the eventual addition of auto takeoff milkers, Jay Grube figures he’ll be able to build the herd to the point where every one of his 80 tie stalls will be filled.