At the beginning of November, the last five robots went online. This was the third and final round of robots to be installed. All in all, this startup went very smoothly. There was a little bit of tweaking with the feedstuff that is put in front of the cows when they’re being milked, but as a whole, we had a pretty good idea of what to expect and how to help the cows transition. The cows have adapted really well to these milkers.
Now that all of the robots are up and running, we are still working through some of challenges of getting to know the different parts of the machines. One morning shortly after the last round of robots were running, the temperature dropped to around 12oF. It was a bit jarring to get down to those temperatures so early in November. The cold came on a Thursday night or Friday morning and we weren’t quite ready for it. My brother Darin was looking all over for heaters to put in the robot rooms.
The robot rooms and the office area for the robots have in-floor heating systems. The rooms aren’t heated using propane or gas. We will have a geothermal process that will take the heat from cooling the milk to be reused to heat the robot rooms and office area. When this first cold snap hit, that system wasn’t hooked up yet. Nothing ended up freezing, but it made for a really hectic morning!
Thanks again to all of our family, friends, neighbors and the agriculture community in our area for helping us get started and adjusted to this new chapter at Majestic Crossing Dairy.
Growing up, my brother, sister and I were 4-H members and loved showing cattle at the Sheboygan County Fair. The fair was the perfect end to summer. Because 4-H helped shape me into the farmer I am today, we always do what we can to support the youth of the county.
This year at the fair, one of our employees’ daughters, Savannah, was in the dairy youth contest. She showed a dairy cow at the fair and won Grand Champion Holstein. The grand champion cow and the top showperson in each age group are featured in the Dairy Youth Showcase where people can bid on their animals. Unlike the meat animal sale, buyers don’t get to keep the animal they are bidding on – this sale is purely for youth support.
40% of the winnings are retained in the county for the dairy youth committee. This money goes to support different activities and experiences for the 4-Hers involved in the dairy project during the year. The other 60% goes directly to the exhibitor to support their involvement and development in agriculture.
This year, we “purchased” Savannah’s cow. It was really special to not only support a young community member, but also to support our employee’s daughter.
2017 has been a really big year for Majestic Crossing Dairy, and we wouldn’t be where we are today — milking our herd on 13 robotic milking machines — without a lot of help from a lot of people.
Community members, farmers in the area and vendors whom we have developed relationships with over the years came to help guide the cows to use the robots when they were transitioning to the new system. Our employees worked longer hours to make sure the cows were comfortable and getting milked. Our nutritionist spent extra time with us, helping us determine the perfect mixture of grain to put in the feed pan in front of the cows. The list goes on.
The amount of people it took to remodel our freestall barns is also astounding. From electricians to plumbers to dairy equipment installers to construction crews to the people who figured out how to get the manure to flow in the right direction. There are so many specialists that needed to come together to get this job done, and we are extremely thankful for every one of them.
When I reflect over the last seven months or so, I realize how tremendously lucky we are to farm where we are. To our family members, neighbors, employees and friends who have helped us on our journey this year, thank you. We couldn’t have done it without you.
Anyone who has done any sort of building project knows that it takes time. When you build a house, it might take six months to actually build, but before you start building, you have all of the contractor and vendor meetings. You have to pick out all of your finishes and flooring. Eventually, you just want it to be finished so you can enjoy what you built.
We’re at that point now with our robotic milker construction. We spent a year planning – touring farms, figuring out how to retrofit the barns, deciding when we would get started, meeting with businesses, the list goes on.
By December or January, we’re hoping that the cows will be accustomed to the new milking system. In January, some of the cows who started on the robots this summer will be having calves. It will be interesting to see how they do coming back into production to be milked on the robots instead of in the parlor.
Even though we’re looking forward to having all thirteen of the robots online and working, we know it won’t be smooth sailing right away. We are already mentally preparing for the first cold snap of the year. You can have things as prepared as possible, but as soon as the first cold snap comes – that first night of ten below – things break or don’t work as well as they should. The robotic milkers are made to work, but we have to learn where the “problem” parts will be. This knob or that elbow fitting. After the first cold snap, the next ones will be a little bit easier because we’ll know what areas to really focus on.
In October we were busy in the fields harvesting corn silage. After a less-than-ideal winter and spring, we are pleasantly surprised at how well our crops are coming off of the fields.
At the beginning of 2017, we really had no idea what our crops were going to look like. Thinking back, the spring weather was horrible. We got into the fields late because the ground was so wet. We were constantly asking ourselves questions: Are the fields ready? Are they not ready? Can we wait another day to see if they’ll dry off more? After the spring we had, it’s amazing that we are having such a good harvest.
After the crops were planted, it kind of kept raining, and rain makes grain… to a point. Too much or too little will kill the crop. All of the decisions we made in the spring were running through our head all summer. One of the challenges of most springtime decisions is that you can’t take them back. Once they’re made, you’re set for the year, and you have to sit back and pray that it works.
We got really lucky this year. Our corn silage yield will be one of our highest years ever. The soybeans are looking good, too. This year was a textbook year of making decisions the best we could, Mother Nature being kind, and proving that it will all work out at the end of the day.
Quite a few people have asked me how long the robot construction process will be from start to finish. I was thinking about it, and it’s a baseball season – the regular season plus postseason. Initial construction began when the Brewers were starting their season. The Brewers’ season is done now, but playoffs are going on and then the World Series will wrap up right around the time our last five robots go live.
It’s been six weeks since the second round of robots went online. This startup was a lot easier than the first, even though we had more cows. In the first startup, we activated three milkers. 120 cows transitioned from being milked in the parlor to the robotic milkers. The second startup was five robotic milkers, with 200 cows being transitioned to use them.
The cows are continually growing and learning. Management-wise, we’re doing some minor tweaks. As the cows use the robotic milkers, we are doing a constant evaluation of the small things we can change to optimize their experience and the machine’s efficiency.
Since this was the second round of startups, we knew a lot more of what to expect. One of the biggest challenges during the first startup was figuring out what “candy” to feed the cows to get them to come to the robotic milker. A lot of farms feed the cows pellets when they are being milked, but we use a grain mix. After some trial and error, we found that for our system and herd, grain was the best option. We’re really starting to get the hang of what we need to do.
At the beginning of November, the last set of robots should be ready to go. With two startups under our belt, we’re looking forward to having the third finished.
One of the final robot rooms under construction.
In late 2014, Majestic Crossing dairy purchased 80 acres about a half a mile from our farm. There was a horse arena on the property that we were initially planning to use for machinery storage in the winter. Before we did anything with the facility, we got a call from someone we had known in the community for years who has an autistic son. She started talking to us about REINS, a non-profit organization that uses therapeutic horse riding to help improve the lives of those with special needs, and shared with us that the program was looking for a new facility.
The owners at Majestic Crossing Dairy thought the program was great and started working with the organization so they could use the horse arena. There was a lot of work that needed to be done both on and around the facility. REINS is a perfect example of a community coming together. Countless volunteers came together to help renovate the building and the surrounding area. Companies in the community have support projects where the employees volunteer for a day instead of working in the office.
Compared to what the building looked like when we first saw it in 2014, I am in awe to see where it is now. Volunteers have done an amazing job with the arena; all we did was give them a place to start.
In 2017, REINS had around forty riders with about one hundred volunteers that helped throughout the season. The program sessions are three days a week in the afternoons and early evenings, from June through August. My dad, Ed, usually goes to at least one session per summer to see what the program is doing. Last year as he was leaving the arena after a session, a young mother approached him in the parking lot. Her son, probably a six-year-old, was riding that day. In the parking lot, the young woman opened up about how great REINS is and what wonders the therapeutic riding has done with her son. She thanked my dad for doing so much to help the program, and told him that it made a big difference in their lives.
At the end of the summer, the program has an event to celebrate the end of another riding season. This year, they presented Majestic Crossing Dairy with a scrapbook filled with pictures and cards from both the program participants and their parents. There wasn’t a dry eye in the entire arena that night. The stories people share with us, whether it was written in a card or face-to-face, these are the stories that really hit home.
One of the REINS program sessions this summer.
Earlier this month we started milking on five more robotic milkers. With this round starting up, it was a different feeling than when we got the first three milkers online earlier this summer. This time we had an idea of what to expect – both the good and the bad.
One of the aspects that we now have figured out is the feeding system in the robots. Getting the cows into milking area is key to the success of the machines. To get them into the area, we offer them a different kind of feed than what is available to them at the feed bunk. Finding the perfect recipe took some time. When the next groups of robots go online, we won’t have to spend as much time figuring out what to offer the cows when they are being milked.
This time around, we also know more of what to expect when we start milking another group of cows with the robots. It’s very chaotic around the farm getting the robots up and running and getting the cows accustomed to the new routine. We can do some physical preparations, but in some cases, like the cows getting used to the new way of being milked, we have to mentally prepare.
Patience is key when it comes to transitioning the cows to the new milkers, not only for the humans, but for the cows too!
At the end of August we finished our fourth cutting of hay. The hay crop has been interesting this year. With the challenging winter we had, we weren’t sure what the crop would look like. Earlier this spring, we had to make decisions about our fields with limited information. We had to look into the crystal ball and predict what the future of these fields would be. When we decided to leave hay in the fields, it was green and growing. Now, looking back, we probably should have replanted some of the hay because it’s not as good of yield as we would like. At the same time though, we knew it would give us something.
All in all, our hay crops will be average. The new alfalfa seedlings that we planted this spring have done very well, with two excellent yielding harvests. The good part is we have a good inventory to get us through winter.
It was a struggle to get the corn crop planted this spring. There was too much rain; we couldn’t seem to find a few good, dry days in a row to plant. Early on, the fields looked poor, but a summer of good weather has helped. As challenging as it was to get the corn crop planted, we’re going to be all right with yield estimates looking to be above historical average for our farm.
It’s been a crazy summer for Wisconsin weather. Parts of the state had severe flooding, while others had major hail storms and tornadoes that ripped through fields. We are lucky to be in one of the pockets that didn’t have any major weather situations this summer, so we should be in good shape.
As we get closer to harvest, it looks like we’ll have plenty of feed to get through the winter and into next year.
Making corn silage during last year’s harvest.
We’ve had the first three robotic milkers up and running for a few weeks now. There is always a huge learning curve when you make such big changes on your farm. There are a lot of kinks to work through, unexpected challenges that arise and new technology to study.
When one part of the farm is under construction, the rest of the farm needs to continue functioning. When we added the first few robots, we were in the middle of cutting hay. We couldn’t stop the fieldwork to solely focus on the robot project. The show must go on!
We have to create new walkways for the cows so the construction crews can work on the parts of the barn where the original walkways were.
As we transition from the milking parlor to the robotic milkers, we have had a lot of help from a lot of people. Members of the community have come to the farm to help us work with the cows as they get used to the new milking environment. For the first three or four days, there was someone from Lely here around the clock making sure the machines were working properly. Employees from our field team have stepped in to help the people in the barns.
A fast and smooth transition is in everyone’s best interest as we shift from one way of milking to another. We wouldn’t be able to do a project like this without all of the help and support that we’ve gotten from everyone along the way. Thank you!