U.S. robotic pioneers

Editor’s note: Central Ag Supply Inc. and Knigge Farms LLC, will host an open house on Sept. 14. Ten years ago, the Knigge farm became the first robotic milking farm in the United States. On May 25, the Knigge’s replaced their original Lely Astronaut equipment with Lely’s latest technology, the Lely Astronaut A3 Next.

What: Knigge Farms and Central Ag Supply Inc. Open House

When: Sept. 14, 10 a.m. – 4 p.m.

Where: 4577 Poygan Avenue, Omro, WI, 54963

Directions: Knigge Farms is located 20 miles west of Oshkosh off Highway 21 (3 miles west of Omro). Go north on Poygan Ave. Knigge Farms is the second farm on the west side of the road.

Information: Contact Central Ag Supply (920-386-2611) or Knigge Farms (920-685-5531)

Wisconsin’s Knigges enter ‘next’ generation

By Dave Natzke

Ten years ago, Knigge Farms LLC, Omro, Wis. became the first U.S. family dairy farm to install robotic milkers. This summer, they replaced those original units with a new generation of dairy robots.

Three generations of Knigges – Pete and Theo, their son Charlie, and his 7-year-old Jacob – can smile about dairy chores at Knigge Farms LLC, Omro, Wis., in part due to robotic milkers. (Photo by Neil Newman)

The farm is owned by Pete, his wife Theo, and Charlie, 34. Charlie has a 7-year-old son, Jacob. The operation includes about 125 cows, 145 head of young stock and 25 feeder steers. The Knigges grow about 600 acres of corn, beans, alfalfa and wheat, and do some custom planting/harvesting. Pete is the herd manager, does most of the AI, and serves as the dairy’s primary general manager; Charlie takes care of nutrition, cropping and maintenance. Theo’s responsibilities include calf care and cleaning the robot rooms.

(Two of Pete and Theo’s daughters have off-farm jobs, but still remain linked to the farm. Krista works for Charleston-Orwig, a communications agency primarily working with ag clients. Mary, who previously worked with the National Milk Producers Federation, became a staff member for the U.S. House Ag Committee last spring.)

Eastern DairyBusiness recently talked with Pete and Charlie, shortly after the 10-year anniversary of the installation of their first robotic milkers and the installation of two new units.

Eastern DairyBusiness: Ten years ago you became the first U.S. dairy to install a robotic milking system. Talk about that experience.

Pete: There’s a fine line between being a pioneer and a lightning rod. There was lots of publicity when we first did it, and there was extra pressure to make it work. Most days we would do the same thing again.

Early on, installing the first robots in the United States, we had to get approvals at many federal and state levels. Regulators didn’t have experience with robots, so it was a challenge. We worked through the process, and there has been a lot of progress on regulatory issues now.

When we see low mik prices, it’s not fun for dairy producers no matter what kind of situation or facilities they have. It’s the nature of our business, but the bottom line is producing the most milk per cow at the lowest cost, and we found the robots helped us keep feed costs down and get more milk from the cows.

It has worked for our goals and situation. One of the things I tell dairy producers who are interested in robotics to go and spend part of a day at a robotic farm, see the routine and talk to the farmers with robotic experience.

EDB: What was the hardest transition to robotic milkers?

Charlie: The biggest challenge was getting the entire herd of cows trained to the robots; it probably took about a month. That was a real chore. Now, it takes about a week to get a fresh heifer trained to enter the robot on her own.

Pete: Feeding – getting the ration right – was also an early challenge. We feed a protein pellet in the robot to entice cow to come in, so we’re pulling some protein out of the TMR. Getting the right balance and protein mixture created lots of challenges.

EDB: The old units lasted 10 years. What led to your decision to install new robots?

Charlie: They’re designed to last longer, but the old ones were starting to show their age. Service and maintenance became an issue, and that was the driving force behind installing new units. Maintenance and technical support are geared toward newer models.

Pete Knigge, with Lely Astronaut robotic milker, in 2000. As a member of the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection educational mission trip, Pete Knigge traveled to The Netherlands on an educational mission trip in 1999, focusing on manure regulations and environmental stewardship. He came home with an interest in robotic milkers. Knigge Farms LLC, near Omro, Wis., installed two Lely Astronaut robotic milking units in 2000. Even though Europeans began using robotic milkers nearly a decade earlier, it was the first robotic installation in the United States. (Photo by JoDee Sattler)

EDB: How has cow handling and traffic changed?

Pete: We have a traditional 4-row freestall barn with drive-through feeding, alley scrapers, with one robot on each side of the barn. We have a small holding area where we can put cows and heifers in for training.

We started out with forced cow traffic, which was a mistake, because it limited feed intake too much. Some of the new recommendations are completely  “free” cow traffic, with no holding areas. With the increase in the number of robotic milkers on farms, there are more designs as more farmers try different things. There are completely new concepts in barn designs.

In our layout, cows can only go to one side. One of the things we would change if we could do it again would be to have both robots available to the entire herd, so if you’re doing routine maintenance or repairs on one, cows still have the other stall to go to. Nobody thought of that 10 years ago when we were designing layout.

EDB: How was cow throughput?

Pete: Probably the highest throughput we ever achieved was 110 cows through two units, three times a day. That was really maxing them out. The biggest change we’ve seen in the new units is speed of attachment, udder preparation and detecting location of teats. The new units should have more capacity than the old ones.

EDB: How have robotic milkers impacted other aspects of your dairy’s management? Start with herd health.

Charlie: Herd health management software and record-keeping improved herd health management. It was a big step up from having (paper) records for individual cows. The robots and software monitors milk conductivity and color, helping identify cows with mastitis. Pedometers help monitor cow activity and identify cows in natural heat, which should help reduce reliance on synchronization programs. It’s important to learn how to interpret the data.

Pete: You still need good husbandry skills to spot cows, but you’re not physically handing the cows or udders, so you have to learn to interpret the reports you receive daily, sometimes hourly. The robot also weighs the cows, and they’ll be flagged if their losing weight too fast. If a cow’s milk production is down from the norm, she’s flagged. The computer gives you a lot of data, and you have to be able to analyze it. Record-keeping capability has improved with the new robots. Lely also has regular webinars, where we can talk to technical people, to learn about what’s all available.

Charlie Knigge, with the Lely Astronaut A3 Next robotic milker, installed in 2010. Central Ag Supply Inc. and Knigge Farms will host an open house on Sept. 14. (Photo by Neil Newman)

EDB: How about genetic selection?

Pete: Good feet and legs and good udders are important. We’ve always stressed selecting bulls that are plus a point in foot and legs and plus a point  in udders. We’ve had a cow or two where the back teats are too close together, and the robot will have trouble with those, but that’s been rare. A more common problem is cows with deep udders or teats spread out to the sides, but there aren’t any dairymen who want to milk those cows, whether your milking by hand, in a parlor, or in a robot.

As we breed for more milk production, we get some deep-uddered cows. That can mean culling older cows with deep udders, because the robot will only go so low.

Hoof heath is also more important in a robotic system, because a cow with sore feet won’t go to the milker. You have to make sure you have a good hoof maintenance and trimming program.

The average age for the herd is 3 years, 3 months, according to the last report.

EDB: Describe milk quality and udder health management?

Pete: Milk quality has been a challenge this summer, with the heat and humidity and switching robots, but it’s been a challenge for everybody. We had a Staph. aureous outbreak, but we now have a handle on that. Some robotic herds have done considerably better than we have – it’s a challenge we’re working on.

The good aspect of the new robots is they do a more complete cycle in udder preparation, going through two wash cycles and actually dries the teats somewhat.

Charlie: When a cow freshens, you’ll enter the date, her number and name, and it will automatically separate her milk for three days, everytime she comes into the robot. When you treat a cow, you identify the type of mastitis, the antibiotics and the treatment period. Anytime you treat or do health work a cow, you have to go immediately to the computer so the milk is separated. Then, we test a cow before she goes back in the tank.

Pete: Early on, regulatory people questioned our ability to enter the data or separate cows. We have a lot invested here, and you have been diligent about it. It works very well.

EDB: Describe cow housing and comfort?

Charlie: Freestalls have mats covered by a rubber pad, bedded with wheat straw we produce on the farm. There are some robotic dairies that use sand bedding, but it increases maintenance and service contracts.

Pete: We have fans and sprinklers. When it’s hot and humid, feed intakes and milk production go down, just like everybody else. But one of the benefits is we don’t have cows in big groups in a holding area. Our milkman says we don’t go down in milk production as much as everybody, and we come back faster, because cows are comfortable and not crowded.

EDB: Discuss the influence of robots on feeding management?

Charlie: Getting a handle on protein – taking some components out of the TMR – was a challenge. But our nutritionist says we now have one of the lowest-cost rations for a herd our size, because we can take some of the protein out of the TMR and topdress it to the cows who need it, so we’re not over-feeding protein to the low-producing cows.

EDB: How have robots impacted your labor needs?

Pete: Hired labor is nearly nonexistent, and we usually include a summer intern and occasional seasonal cropping help.

When we first considered robots 10 years ago, the availability of Hispanic labor was not widespread here, and labor was a tremendous issue. We’re happy with the system, because we’re not worrying about finding quality people showing up to milk cows. The robots milk the cows, seven days a week, three times a day.

A dairymen visited recently who’s annual labor bill was $150,000. Obviously, that would go a long way to buying a new robot. As labor costs increase, attracting quality labor is a challenge. The robots have eliminated that problem.

EDB: How has maintenance changed?

Charlie: It’s come a long way in 10 years. Everything is spelled out regarding maintenance schedules. The company has made great advances in getting a dealer network in the Upper Midwest, and making sure people are here for regular maintenance.

Pete: There’s also 10 years of technology built into robotic units. The units are simpler, cleaner, faster and give us more information.

The box is the same size, but the arm is smaller and cleaner. Hoses are inside the arm; in the old one, exposed hoses made it easy for a cow catch one with her foot and cut a hose or pull off a teat cup. There’s also a simpler milk separation system that lets us collect colostrum from fresh cows or milk from treated cows.

EDB: What are the biggest personal benefits to a robotic system?

Pete: Lifestyle is the biggest benefit. Your life doesn’t revolve around 5:30 a.m./5:30 p.m. milking. It’s a completely different lifestyle.

Charlie: You’re not tied to the clock, with more flexibility for family events or cropping. And, it provides a set routine for the cows. They’re milked the same everytime. It’s a nice way to handle cattle.

Pete: Cows are quieter; you’re not herding cows around. it’s a quiet, relaxed situation in the barn, and cows set their own schedule.

EDB: Are there any drawbacks?

Pete: When we installed the first robots, we expanded and built a new barn. As any dairy producer knows, an expansion is expensive. So the drawback is the capital costs; technology is expensive. But we justified that against labor.

With more robots around the country, lenders seem to be more receptive, since they have more data to work with. If farmers show good cash flow and profitability and have some equity, banks have been relatively favorable. Lely also does some financing.

EDB: Anything you would do differently?

Pete: We have a discussion similar to those for all expanding dairies: 4-row or 6-row barn? A 4-row barn probably ventilates better, has more neck rail or headlock space, but a 6-row barn would be cheaper to build, and cows would be a little closer to the robot. You have that discussion, whether it’s a parlor or robots.

EDB: Due to robot throughput, you must be limited on herd expansion. What’s ahead for Knigge Farms LLC.

Charlie: If we would decide to expand, the barn is set up so two additional robots can be added at the end of the barn. We’re pretty comfortable at our current size, based on current barn capacity and acreage. We should be able to boost the milking herd because of greater capacity of the new robots. We want to increase production and quality – keep doing more of the same of what we’re doing.

Pete: I’m 64, Charlie is 34. If there’s an expansion, it will be up to his generation to decide. Jacob is 7, and loves cows. If he wants to dairy, it will be his option.

EDB: I noticed you use social media, like Facebook. Why?

Charlie: We use a Facebook page to inform people about our dairy and the dairy industry. It helps us stay connected to the people who tour the dairy, and provide information on activities and events on the farm. People who visit want to stay connected.

Pete: Tours are conducted almost weekly. We think that’s vital to the industry, because people are getting so far removed the dairy business and farms in general. It’s important for the dairy industry to tell its story, because there are so many competing interests out there.

FYI

• Follow Knigge Farms LLC on their Facebook page: www.facebook.com/KniggeFarms or contact them via e-mail: knigge@northnet.net. The farm is located 20 miles west of Oshkosh, Wis. off Highway 21, at 4577 Poygan Ave., Omro, WI, 54963.

• More information about the Lely Astronaut A3 Next robotic milking system is available at www.lely.com or Facebook (www.facebook.com/pages/Lely-USA/129534577063347).

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