By Gary West and Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
From shoveling feed and milking in a parlour three times a day, Gary Pletsch and family are going fully robotic with a new barn that will reveal just how robotic and digitized dairy farming has become.
With plans to bring the cows home in September to the finished barn just west of New Hamburg, Gary, his partner Tessa and their two sons will soon adjust from a time-consuming, labour-intensive dairy system to one of computerized management where checking apps to control robots will be as important as watching cattle.
“We’ll still need to go to the barn but we’ll be looking at a computer instead of attaching milkers for an hour,” says Gary. “Obviously, we’ll also still be treating cattle ourselves but the robots will provide the information to tell us which cow and when the optimal time is for treating and breeding.”
The Pletsch family went with Lely robotics for milking, feeding and manure cleaning. While many new barn builds have one or two robotic systems, the Pletsch family is going for all three plus a computerized ventilation system. This means all the major components of managing dairy cattle will be robotic, computerized and digitized.
“This is where the industry is going and it’s part of being ready for the next generation when it comes to succession,” says Gary. “Future farmers are looking for simplicity and ease so they can spend more time managing the dairy instead of physically doing it.”
Gary worked with his dad in a very traditional dairy for years with long days of labour before purchasing his own farm in 2015. As herd size increased, he soon outgrew the existing facility. Knowing a new barn would be needed, he kept the old bank barn and its double-five parlour “as is” until this summer when the build began. The dairy cows were farmed out to other robotic barns to learn the ropes while the new, 120-stall dairy barn takes shape, incorporating much of the technology currently available.
Gary admits he’s been “old-schooling” it for quite a while. There was lots of shovelling in the old barn and as to records, much of it was kept “in memory” or written in a little notebook in the barn before being transferred to a computer spreadsheet. At the age of 45, Gary grew up without computers. His first exposure was to a Commodore 64 in public school. His sons, however, have grown up with computers, smartphones and tablets. “I can be taught it and learn it but my oldest son is 13 and he has it figured out while I am still reading the manual.” Still, Gary is a person who embraces change. “I like change. I think it keeps everyone going.”
With that attitude, it’s no surprise that the Pletsch dairy barn is one of the first to combine all three of Lely’s robotic systems: robotic milkers, robotic feeders and robotic manure cleaners. Many are familiar with the robotic milkers which have dramatically changed the management style of dairy farmers in Ontario and across the world. Not everyone is familiar with the Lely Vector feeding system or the Lely Collector manure system.
Gary explained that the Vector is a self-propelled feed cart that loads itself, mixes itself and discharges feed … itself. “It drives around the barn and puts feed where it’s needed then tells itself when the feed is getting low and refills itself,” explains Gary. The benefit is the cows get fed more often, with fresh feed rather than getting fed two or three times a day in traditional dairy barns. “It took us an hour and a half to feed before and we fed three times a day. So that was almost five hours a day just feeding,” recalls Gary. The Vector eliminates all that labour and time and it beeps each time it visits the feed alleys. This alerts the cows that fresh feed is available which increases feed intake which will lead to improved production. Gary, Tessa and the boys can monitor the whole process via apps on their phones.
While the robotic feed cart ensures cows always have fresh feed, the Lely Collector is working in the alleyways to keep the barn clean. “It’s really a glorified vacuum cleaner,” says Gary. The Collector has a 32-inch scrape, kind of like a squeegee, which funnels manure to a three-inch suck hole and bladder as it drives itself around the barn. When the bladder is full, or the Collector finishes its route, it drives to a discharge hole where it automatically empties and refills with water (it sprays as it goes). Then it will park, recharge, and launch again for its next programmed route.
Gary visited other barns that use the Collector and said he was pleased how chill the cows were around the moving robotic cleaner. “They were pretty nonchalant about it,” he says. Like all Lely robots, the machine beeps as it moves, and cows soon learn the signals and move out of the way as necessary.
Lastly, the Pletsch family chose to go with an electronic system called Edge to control the lights and ventilation. It manages all the lights, air intakes, fans and baffles. Gary will input the parameters for temperature, moisture and static pressure and the Edge system will manipulate the barn to maintain those parameters. On warm days, it will suck in outside air and on cooler days, it will suck warmer air from a literal attic above the low ceiling so that the cattle don’t experience bursts of cold air during the cold months.
It’s quite a switch going from an older, manually-dependent barn to one of the most high-tech barns in the province. Certainly, it will require a change in management but Gary is looking forward to all the data he can access to make timely decisions. For instance, the cattle will wear sensors in collars around their necks so the robotic milkers can track heats, rumination, overall cow activity and ketone levels. “I will know hours before a cow actually looks sick that something is off,” says Gary. “Same with breeding. Instead of needing to see the sign of heat and wondering if the heat started hours before, the robots will tell me when the perfect time to breed that cow is. This is where the payback is … getting a cow pregnant on a single dose of semen is huge rather than missing the heat and having to milk her another three weeks.”
Technology is expensive but so was the price of lumber which increased by over 200 per cent during the build. The costs of new builds can be frightening but the labour-savings will give the family more time for their side-hustle -- a custom combining and trucking business.
Ultimately, Gary thinks the digitized and robotic barn will be great for family life. Instead of getting up at four in the morning to do chores, the family can rest until six. Also, they won’t be so tied to feeding and milking schedules which make vacation and extra-curricular activities difficult. “This is kind of the way dairy farming is going and I’m excited about it,” he said. ◊