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Adding Automation to a Dairy Farm

Growing with innovation and technology is how Takes Dairy near Ely, Iowa, plans to continue into the future.

First-generation dairy farmers Dan and Debbie Takes bought their eastern Iowa farm 30 years ago. They began milking cows 22 years ago and have gradually evolved with the industry.

“My mom grew up on a hog farm, but my dad grew up in the city. When they started dating, he fell in love with the farming way of life,” says Josie Takes Rozum. “They started with beef cows, but they wanted to provide more for our family, which included six kids. They decided a dairy would be the best option.”

The couple started with 30 cows and, through the years, have built their Holstein herd to 150 cows. 

Dan has always been a forward thinker, and 15 years ago he saw the importance of being farm-to-table on their farm – using the crops they grow to feed the cows and using the manure from the cows to go back on the crops. This allowed them to care for the environment and the finances. Going a step further meant producing their own dairy products. In 2013, they purchased an old lumberyard building in Ely and began renovations to create their own creamery.

“Dan and Debbie’s Creamery has been open for three years and makes cheese and ice cream, and bottles milk for customers in the area,” Takes Rozum says. “It’s been great to see my parents’ dream come true and it’s been a good decision since milk prices haven’t been as good the past few years.”

Innovation sought

As the six children grew up, four wanted to return to the farm. Over time, the transition in responsibilities began along with looking for new innovation and technology.

“At the beginning of last year, my brother, Dustin, started researching how we could include more technology to give our parents more time to enjoy the grandchildren and not be working so hard on the farm,” she says. “He saw the robotic dairy system and thought it would be a good option.”

Because the family prides itself on how it cares for animals, cow comfort and animal husbandry are very important. The robotic system focuses a lot on cow comfort. 

Research led Dustin to Lely’s The Way to Dairy contest. The company was looking for progressive dairy operations that wanted to maximize each cow’s potential while changing the dairy tasks to be more sustainable, profitable, and enjoyable.

“We thought how perfect the robots would be to give us all flexibility yet provide a great way of milking our cows,” Takes Rozum says. 

Filling out the entry form, Dustin explained the family’s high standards for sustainability and innovation, while paying close attention to animal care. In December 2018, the family found out it was selected as the winner of a new Lely Astronaut A5 milking system or a Vector feeding system. 

Although the Takes family knew it eventually wanted to incorporate robots, it didn’t know how quickly the technology could be added. Depending on options, prices generally range from $150,000 to $200,000 per robot. This doesn’t include installation, start-up support, etc. 

Once the family members received the award, they knew it was time to get to work. Plans were discussed and blueprints were drawn. The swing 16 parlor will be replaced by two Lely Astronaut A5 robots. 

Since milk production is expected to remain close to current numbers once the cows become accustomed to the system, the family plans to reduce the herd to 120. “A high percentage of cows will catch on in three days, especially those that are earlier in lactation,” says Lely’s Steve Fried. “Within three weeks, more than 80% will voluntarily use the robot; within three months, more than 95% will go on their own.”

The dairy will also integrate the Vector feeding system. “The heifer and cow barns will have a connection, so the Vector feeding system can feed both groups,” Takes Rozum says.

Because the Takeses have had the farm-to-table state of mind for years, they were mindful of that concept when developing the plans. 

“We want tour groups to be able to see how our cows live,” Takes Rozum says. “If they can see the cows through observation windows, they will realize what a great life they live.”

Challenges in Change

While the family is looking forward to transitioning to robotics, it also realizes there will be challenges. Genetics are important in the Takes herd. They are moving toward cows that produce A2 milk, which is lactose-free. Takes Rozum says it will take many years to get the entire herd to produce this kind of milk.

“Besides moving toward A2 production, Dad has been analyzing udders to determine what changes need to be made so the cows can better withstand the robot, and it will connect better,” she says. “This means finding artificial insemination bulls with level udders and good teat placement. We want to alleviate any problems by forward thinking.”

Currently, 100% of the feed used on the farm is homegrown, and only non-GMO varieties are used. Feedstuffs include corn silage, orchard grass, sorghum/Sudan grass, alfalfa, and roasted soybeans. To add a high protein to the diet, any excess whey from cheesemaking at the creamery is brought back to the farm and added to the total mixed ration.

“We want zero waste, especially from the creamery. We roast the soybeans we grow to put in the diet, which makes it more digestible for the cows,” she says.

The robots provide a pellet feed to the cows while they are being milked. The Takeses are even looking into how to produce a homemade pellet so they can continue to feed only feed they grow.

The Vector system will be used to feed cows, which is an automated feeding system programmed through the Lely T4C software, collecting and mixing the needed feedstuffs for each group. The system will feed in smaller amounts to keep the feed fresh and more inviting to the cows. 

“Everyone loves to eat fresh food, even cows. The new feed system will provide this for the cows and heifers and give us more time to monitor other things on the farm,” she says.

The continual wet weather this spring has slowed the progress of the construction at Takes Dairy, but when conditions improve, the project will move forward. 

“My brother, Tyler, and my mom will probably be the most impacted by the change to robotics,” says Takes Rozum. “Tyler currently does all of the feeding and Mom does the milking, but they are both looking forward to helping the rest of us in other areas of the farm and creamery. We are excited for what’s ahead.” 

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