LF20170729N-griffiths-robot.jpg

LISLE, N.Y. — For dairy farmer Chuck Mras, the decision to install robots was all about the future.

“My son Andy was already back at the farm and my daughter, Jessie, was finishing up at Cornell and would be returning, too, so we were wondering what we could do to make our family dairy farm work,” Mras said.

The cost of putting in a robot was high, he said, but after five years of doing research, Mras and his family decided it was time to bite the bullet.

“Spending this time checking everything out, which included visiting six farms with robots and going on the tour offered through Lely was a very valuable time, and anyone considering a robot should go,” Mras told a group of visitors to his Lisleview Farm.

For those contemplating transitioning to robots, Mras has a warning: Don’t expect to get financing easily.

“We had quite a bit of trouble getting financing and we really had to look outside the box to allow us to do this with the lowest interest possible,” he said.

Mras said he and his family wanted a new facility built to accomodate the robot, on a new site. With the existing layout of the farm, it meant that the water line had to go under an existing railroad line, adding to the complexity of the project.

The project cost $1.1 million, $400,000 for the two Lely Astronaut robots alone.

While Lely came up with the original design of the barn, Bob Church, project manager with Fingerlakes Dairy Services Inc., customized it.

“Lighting is very important. Orion lights are excellent and the model our electrician identified for us has a built-in night lighting feature that provides very good lighting for moving animals when it is dark and significantly reduces incidence of falls,” Mras said.

Milton Jinks, a nutritionist from McDowell and Walker in Afton, also joined the farm team. Mras said Jinks was instrumental in the barn’s design.

“Once the details were worked out, things did go fairly quickly,” Mras said. “We closed at the end of September 2016 and moved in March 2017.”

But the transition hasn’t been easy. Church told the group that anyone wanting to get robots should expect many sleepless nights for at least the first three months.

Andy Mras said most of their problems showed up in the first six weeks, but with help from Lely and Fingerlakes Dairy Services technicians, they were able to fix all of their problems.

“As all these communications are online, it is vital that the farm has reliable internet connections at all times,” Andy Mras said.

Church said that he visited the farm every two to three weeks to check that the robots were running correctly.

Whitney Davis, dairy equipment sales manager at Fingerlakes Dairy Services, said most problems farmers experience with new robots are small things caused by the cows trying to get used to the new system.

“Things will also go wrong if the machines are not kept clean,” Davis said.

Andy Mras said it took about three weeks for the cows to learn how to use the robots. He said he wants to make that transition go quicker in the future, so he is looking at “robot-friendly” bulls for future breeding.

Feed at the robots attracts cows into the system to be milked.

“Some cows will come in just for the food when it isn’t their time to milk and they will be pushed through by the robot. It is like some kids going for the candy,” Andy Mras said.

The farm’s computer system generates health treatment reports that provide valuable information on health management, allowing the farmer to pinpoint what cows need attention and to catch issues a lot earlier.

A robot can identify many issues, including the presence of blood in milk. If detected, the milk is immediately dumped, the machine is extensively washed and an alert is placed in the computer file for that cow.

Andy Mras said mastitis has been much less a problem for them since transitioning to robotic milking.

“It was eight to 10 weeks before we saw a case,” he said.

Cows go through the robot quickly with the average milking time for each cow being 7 1/2 minutes.

The robots operate 24/7, stopping only three times a day for a 20-minute wash down.

Chuck, Andy and Jesse Mras are the only ones working on the farm, which includes a total of 300 animals; 116 milked via robot and 30 milked in the tie-stall barn.

Prior to the robots, Jessie Mras was milking 160 cows, twice a day, alone.

“The robots have helped tremendously. I now milk 30 cows twice a day in the tie-stall,” she said.

For Lisleview Farm, adding the robots has allowed the family to manage the health needs of their cows more effectively, and as a result, milk yields have increased.

In addition, they can manage their 400 acres in a more timely manner.

“We have kept the original dairy running as we thought it may be useful for moving animals that didn’t work with the robot, but we’ve not really had that problem. We may at some point stop working there, efficiency is important. The price of milk dictates a lot, too,” Chuck Mras said.

Helen Margaret Griffiths is a freelance writer in south-central New York.