Reed Haven Farms Transition to Automatic Milking Systems

Julie Berry

Wednesday, August 9

10:30 am - Transitioning to Automatic Milking Systems:  What Have We Learned?

Reedhaven Robots with Dan & Justin Reed
Dan, left, and Justin Reed of Reed Haven Farms LLC near Adams Center, N.Y. will talk about their conversion to a robotic milking system at Empire Farm Days on Aug. 9.

Transitioning to automatic milking systems is a major change for a dairy farm, with the decision impacting many areas of the business. Join this panel as the lessons learned are shared in: budgeting and making the decision, planning the change, starting the system up, making management changes, and continuing to learn how to best utilize.

Jason Karszes, Cornell PRO-DAIRY, will moderate a panel, which will include Bruce Dehm, Dehm Associates, and three NY farmer panelists, who have used automatic milking systems ranging from one year to eight years. These farmer panelists have seen increases in milk production and changes in how they manage their farms with transition to automatic milking systems, and include:

Steve Sondericker is owner/operator at Friendly Acres, LLC in Attica, NY. They milk 500 cows on 8 robots installed in 2016. “In a nutshell it's been a really good move. We’ve gained 10 lbs. of milk and reduced employees from 10 down to 5.”

Justin Reed is herd manager at Reed Haven Farms, LLC in Adams Center. They have 230 milking and dry cows and crop 1,200 acres of hay, corn, beans, oats, rye and barley. They began milking with 2 robots in January 2015 and added a third robot in May 2016. 160 cows are milked by the robots, and the remainder are milked in a stanchion barn. Reed reports that production has increased 30 percent, which he attributes to increased cow comfort, less stress and increased frequency of milking. “They’re flexible, but you’re never done milking,” he says.

Bill Kilcer, is owner/operator, of Wind Stott in Genoa. Since installing two robots eight years ago the 130-cow farm has increased production from 60 to 80 lbs. “Adjusting, like to any major change, is difficult,” he said. His biggest challenges were with learning the technology. Kilcer welcomes discussion and visits with farmers who are considering implementing the technology.

Reed Haven Farms Transition to Automatic Milking Systems

Reed Haven Farms, LLC in Jefferson County, N.Y. broke ground in 2013 on a new barn designed for milking robots, with an eye toward bringing in the next generation of the family. Today it consists of 230 milking and dry cows and 1,200 acres of hay, corn, soybeans, oats, barley and winter rye. Care for cows and people is evident with all the farm’s decisions.

The farm was owned by Dan and Jo Anne Reed, his brother Alan, and their late brother, Mason. Dan and JoAnne’s two oldest sons, Andrew and Justin, have now joined the management partnership. For years, the Reed’s herd of 175 cows had been milked 2x in shifts on a pipeline in an 80-stall stanchion barn with an attached 50-stall free-stall. The new barn is designed for four robots. Two were installed initially and the third was added in May 2016.

“We had to do something to our old facility if the boys were going to continue,” Dan said. “The stall barn was highly labor intensive. It meant building a new facility. Our biggest considerations were labor and cow comfort.”

Justin is a SUNY Morrisville BT graduate of their four-year dairy program, which included a semester at Cornell University. Prior to returning to the home farm he worked and interned for other farms including Curtin Dairy and Mason Dixon Farm, which used robots.  “I had a little experience, as I had worked for the Mason Dixon Farms in PA when they had 10 robots. They now have 20,” he says.

Andrew is a Cornell graduate and also worked and interned on other farms before returning home.  He helps manage the crops, does the feeding in the robot barn and is the farm’s chief mechanic.

The Reeds worked closely with John Lehr, Farm Credit, to budget several scenarios to see if the transition was feasible and what type of facility might best fit their goals. They then visited many farms, attended open houses, participated in workshops and talked with other farmers before deciding on a robotic milking facility.

Along with construction starting in October 2013, came the need for plans for a lot of system changes. These included transitioning from upright silos, stationary mixer, semi-solid manure to bagged forages, portable mixer and liquid manure. Construction delays due to North Country winter weather turned out to be a blessing.

“Don’t rush into it,” Dan says. Having extra time to walk through the barn and visualize its use led to practical design changes. The Reeds worked closely with the foreman, a hired independent consultant and Lely, the equipment manufacturer, for barn design. Another key issue was to figure out where to best locate the barn. The family owns 1,400 acres but bought acreage from the neighboring farm for the barn. They recommend holding at least one planning meeting with the contractor, farm management, engineer/architect and consultant.

Their new barn is a 286 stall four-row barn with lock ups and feed alley on one side and space for four robots in one room on the other side. 48 of the stalls on one end are for dry cows and are adjacent to the maternity area. A clean walk alley along one side of the barn allows easy observation of the cows and facilitates movement of the cows between pens without passing through other groups. Built with cow comfort in mind, other features include fully automated fans and curtains, LED lights, 12 inches of fiberglass insulation on the tri-ply ceiling, a 1:1 cow to stall ratio, waterbed mattresses, rubber mat along the feed alley, Jamesway dura chain alley scrapers with gutter tubes, cow brushes, Lely Juno feed pusher and stainless steel heated waterers that pivot to dump for easy cleaning. A section of culvert pipe mounted in the concrete next to the waterers serves to contain a salt block or any other supplement. A hoof trimming station is located in the center of the barn and can be accessed by either of the two milking groups. The family is still solving footbath locations. One is in the exit through the graze way and one was added to a crosswalk.

The space surrounding the robots was constructed with ease of maintenance in mind, and the area is sparkling clean. A hose is located by each robot for daily washing. Stainless steel trays are under the robots and can be pulled out to clean. The floor is epoxy painted, which is slippery, but easy to clean and it is also aggressively sloped toward the drain along one wall.

Although the barn is designed for four robots, only two were initially installed. A third robot was added in May of 2016.  Space is allocated for a fourth robot that is not yet installed. This allowed the barn to be filled through internal growth. The cows were moved to the new barn late December 2014, with the first milk shipped January 1, 2015. Transition from a stanchion barn to robots was relatively easy as the farm family is connected to their cows. Each cow is named and is used to being handled closely. Cows were introduced to pelleted grain a week before transitioning to robots and clear feed tubes allow level of grain to be visually monitored. One-way design was switched to free-flow.

Today, between 160 and 170 cows are milked by the robots, and the remainder are milked in the old stanchion barn, and include misfits, tail enders, special needs and treated cows.

The Reeds have realized that not only was their outdated, overcrowded old barn labor intensive, but it was keeping the cows from reaching their genetic potential as evidenced by their 30% increase in herd production.

Justin attributes the production increase to cow comfort, less stress and increased frequency of milking. “They’re flexible, but you’re never done milking,” he says. “It was definitely the way to go. Cows don’t like to go back to the old barn for milking. This new barn is very quiet and peaceful.”

Robots bring out the personality of each cow, the Reeds say.  “There’s less of a group mentality. We learn more about the individual cow behaviors. It brings the individuality out of them,” Justin says.

Among their lessons learned list, is that switching from directed flow to free flow increased cow attendance at the robot. Also, the cross alleys could be bigger. But they also now fully appreciate the gates they added that allow one person to move cows, as well as extra man passes which allow personnel to enter and exit groups safely and quickly without opening gates. They originally installed a “temporary” swing gate on the corner of each robot by its entrance for the initial start-up but find it regularly useful to direct new cows during training. The extra space on the barn end is used for alley scraper units and they added covered storage for their robotic feed pusher. All entrances to the manure alleys from the outside slope in toward the barn thus preventing any random manure from escaping.

Knowing how helpful visiting and seeing other set-ups was to them, they welcome and support tours of other farmers and interested groups to their farm.