Another successful year for REINS

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.

REINS program

One of the REINS program sessions this summer.

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Robotic milkers: round two

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!

Lely Robotic Milking Unit

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Fall harvest is on its way

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.

Making corn silage during last year’s harvest.

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Robotic Milkers: The Show Must Go On

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!

The show must go on when we are installing our robotic milking system at Majestic Crossing Dairy.

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!

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Necklaces for the cows

With the addition of the robotic milkers to the farm, we’re relying on technology more than ever. The robots add a level of technology that this farm hasn’t seen before.

Each cow now wears a collar – like a necklace –  that is fitted with a transponder which communicates with the milking robot. The transponder is one of the key components that makes robotic milking possible. It houses more information than you could imagine about the individual cow, not only about the milk she is making, but all of her activity – including chewing.

The transponder acts as an I.D. tag for the cows. When a cow walks up to the robot, her transponder is scanned. The robot knows exactly which cow is ready to be milked. If not enough time has passed between milkings, the robot will lift the gate and the cow will continue walking through. If enough time has passed since the cow’s last visit to the milking machine, she will be milked again.

The robot records the amount of time it takes to milk each quarter of the cow, how much she eats while she is being milked, how much milk she made during each particular visit, and even records the cow’s body temperature. The robot can sense when something has changed from one milking to the next. If something is abnormal, including if the cow isn’t eating as much as she should be, the robot flags that cow on the computer. When a cow is flagged, someone evaluates her.

Even though a person is not milking the cows, we are more in-tune than ever as to what’s going on in the barn.


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Installing Robotic Milkers

I’ve mentioned previously we are installing robotic milkers. It’s amazing all the people it takes to get the job done, along with the time and effort. We are retro-fitting our barn so we have construction workers, builders, plumbers, and Lely experts working together. We have three robots in the small barn that are running. There’s angst and excitement at the farm.

Photo by Len Villano

The pre-work started weeks ago. Working with our cows’ nutritionist, we started top dressing our cows’ feed.  Top dressing means we are adding the cows new feed to the top of their current feed. This gets the cows familiar with the smell and texture of the new diet they will be fed while being milked by the robot. They love this stuff.

There will be 13 robots in total and we’ll be installing them in three stages. We plan to have them all running by mid- to late September. On my iPad,I see a dashboard that shows me how much our cows are milking, the milk temperature, which cows have been milked, and other key components of the process. If anything isn’t right, the “robot” sends a message to my phone.

We spent a lot of time talking with other farmers about the robots before we installed them, especially our friends at SwissLane Dairy. Their advice was to “stay out of the barn.” What they meant by that was to “let the cow do what a cow does.” Any time you disturb the cows you distract them from eating, drinking or resting. Just letting them do what they want is how we’ll move forward. In the future, we’ll have a glassed-in area for tours. We always have to keep sharing our story. With our robots, hopefully we’ll have even more time to do just that.

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Sharing the Artisan Cheese Story

At the June meeting of the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board (WMMB), we heard a report from a market research firm that conducted focus groups in major cities. From the research, we learned that people know we are “cheeseheads” and we have cheese curds and the Packers, but they didn’t know we are the nation’s leader in specialty cheese production. People have no idea about the intensity of the training it takes to become a Master Cheesemaker. They also don’t know Wisconsin cheesemakers continue to win national and global awards for quality.

Specialty cheeses are what we call value-added. They create new markets for farmers and help keep Wisconsin “America’s Dairyland.” We also learned people want to see and hear stories about the dairy farmers who produce the milk and the cheesemakers that turn it into artisan cheese. Our new CEO, Chad Vincent, said people are eating our cheese and loving it, but don’t know it is from Wisconsin. He said WMMB will “up our game” in telling that story.

A perfect example: Recently, my sister got married and a foreign exchange student from Czechoslovakia attended the wedding. She tasted the Sartori BellaVitano, which, in March, won the title of Grand Champion of the U.S. Championship Cheese Contest outscoring more than 2,000 entries from 33 states. The foreign exchange student couldn’t believe how amazing the cheese tasted. That’s the reaction I find from everyone who tastes it. So, next time you talk with friends from out of state, share the story of our cheese.

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Getting Lucky with the Weather

Photo by Len Villano

We finished second crop hay. I feel fortunate because we didn’t get the hard rains and hail that some farmers had. Some areas had 4-5 inches of rain last week and this weekend farmers got one-inch hail north of where we are. I feel for them. What will they feed their cows? Add this on to the lost hay over the winter. Many farmers tore out 70-80% of their hay crop because there was too much rain and ice which killed the plants. Our hay was borderline. Then, add this to the low milk price and it weighs on people.

We’ve had our agronomist walking our fields and using a drone to look at what is going on. Questions such as “Does the corn need extra nitrogen?” is a judgement call we have to make. At this point, we can spoon feed it … if it needs it. You are playing the market. You don’t have control. It’s what the good Lord gives you. You roll the dice and capitalize on it when you can.

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Farm Technology Days is this Week

This week is Farm Technology Days in Kewaunee County. It’s an important show for everyone – farmers and consumers – to learn more about technology used to grow food. And, it’s an opportunity for farmers to connect with vendors and see how new technology can be implemented on the farm. There are farm tours, field demonstrations, great food, educational tents and lots of exhibitors … it’s like a one-stop shop for farmers.

A few years ago, it was in Sheboygan County. It took three years of volunteers to put on the big event. One of the best things about hosting the show was how it really pulled everyone in our county together. I served on a committee and we all worked hard to make it a great show. You become very tight with the people on your committee. It’s pretty neat. It’s more than a farm show. It’s people connecting in your community. And, that’s always a good thing.

I hope you’ll try to make it to the show. It’s hosted by Ebert Enterprises and runs July 11-13. You won’t be disappointed.

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Robotic Milkers: Construction

Instead of constructing a new building for our robotic milkers, we are redesigning the barns we already have to accommodate them. This is also called retrofitting.

The robotic milkers will go right in the freestall barns, but they are housed in “robot rooms,” two milkers per room. Each robot room is about the size of eight or nine of the freestall beds. We are adding on to one end of the barn so we aren’t losing any space at all, just moving the beds from one part of the barn to another, newer part of the barn.

Construction projects around the farm are always crazy, but this one is at a whole new level. There was one day when I couldn’t get into the driveway. There were probably 25 people here between the manure equipment company, the plumbers, the electrical company and the concrete trucks.

When we built the milking parlor, everything was happening in one place. There is one general collection area where the majority of the plumbing, electrical, water pipes, etc. are located. Because we’ll need several robot rooms, all of those things are way more spread out, and have to lead to a central location. Months of planning go into making sure everything will work out. All our due diligence really pays off during the construction.

This project is happening in phases. We’re starting with two to three robotic milkers that we hope to have up and running soon.We’ll have a small group of cows – around 120 – that will be trained to use the robotic milkers instead of going to the milking parlor. It’ll be like a series of startups. We’ll start with two to three robotic milkers, then we’ll do five more, and then five more until we have thirteen total robotic milkers.

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