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Albany farmers happy with robotic milker

By Carol Stender

Date Modified: 03/01/2012 8:58 AM

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ALBANY, Minn. — When Steve and Cheryl Schlangen's 17-year-old parlor needed new equipment and repairs, they considered their options: The Albany dairy farmers could purchase the replacement equipment or build a small addition to their existing freestall barn and install a robotic milker.

They chose the latter and are glad they did.

For the last two years, their 60 to 65 cow herd has been milked by the robotic system. They like its consistency and the reports it generates. The system tracks each cow's production, notes its milk quality including any mastitis issues and tracks animal activity which can be an indicator for breeding or illness.

Gone are the twice-a-day milkings in the parlor. Now the cows visit the robot. Some of them are milked up to four times a day, Steve said.

He can spend more time managing the milking herd, calves and heifers.

Steve was elected AMPI chairman a year ago. He can be gone from the farm up to 60 to 70 days out of the year. But, with the robotic milker, he can attend meetings with no worries about the milking schedule. Cheryl or one of the couple's twin sons can check on the robot's report. A young local farmer fills in to handle the morning feeding.

He hadn't considered a robotic milker originally. The systems were fairly new with few farms installing them, he said. Then their veterinarian suggested a robotic milker for their farm during a herd health visit.

"The vet told me the technology was developed for smaller herds," Steve said. "I liked that. Much of the research is usually geared for larger farms, but here was something we could use."

A fellow AMPI board member got one and told Steve how it benefited his operation. Steve and Cheryl visited farms to see the units in action and talked to farmers about the units' operation.

They weren't adverse to the technology. The two had made many improvements to their farm over the years and were experienced dairymen themselves.

Steve grew up a few miles from Richmond on a diversified farm. He was the 10th of 12 children and helped with the farm's dairy, hogs, chicken and crops. After high school, he took over the farm for a year and, when a brother returned to the operation, left to study dairy management at Ridgewater College in Willmar. He graduated in 1982 and started working for Ralph Kalthoff by St. Martin. Besides his small dairy operation, Kalthoff also had 15,000 laying hens.

In 1983, a tornado wiped out many of Kalthoff's buildings. The chicken barn was gone but the dairy barn, house and grain bin remained. Kalthoff didn't need as much help as his farming operation changed after the storm, Steve said. He continued to help with some of the work, but found other employment. He worked in construction and at the granite company in cold Spring. But he wanted to get back into farming.

Steve learned about a dairy herd for sale near Brandon. He bought it. He rented a vacant barn, put in a pipeline and, in the spring, he rented the land. Steve continued to help Ralph with fieldwork and rented Ralph's machinery for his own crops.

"It worked well for both of us," he said. "I didn't own a tractor for the first two years I farmed."

He had 28 cows and some youngstock when he started the farm. He married Cheryl and purchased the farm in 1989.

They built a free stall barn with a double-six herringbone parlor in 1992. The freestall had slatted floors with a manure pit underneath. They did most of the work themselves with help from family, friends and neighbors.

They built a shed for feed storage in 1993, a new house in 1995 and a bunker silo in 2000.

But in 2006, they had a fire. A barn where youngstock were housed was destroyed and nine animals were lost. Although the fire was tragic, it was also a blessing in disguise, he said. They cleaned up the debris and built a new heifer shed on the same foundation.

Three years ago, they considered the robotic milking system. They didn't need a new building to house the unit. They built a 14-foot by 20-foot addition onto the freestall barn complete with observation room. It cost them $7,000 for the addition plus the cost of the robot which is similar to the pricetag of a new combine, Steve said.

"You use a combine for a short period of time every year," he said. "The robot is used many times each and every day."

They financed the system with Agri Credit, an Iowa financing company that works with Lely, he said.

When they transitioned the herd to the robot, they milked six cows and a couple heifers in the parlor, but learned quickly that it was easier to have the entire herd trained on the robot at once. All the animals — cows and heifers —adapted quickly to the system.

They had regular webinars with a Lely representative who answered their questions, he said.

Cows are fed in the freestall and also receive pellets during milking, Steve said. Their own feed is used in the pellet ration, custom made at the Holdingford mill.

"The robot has given us flexibility," Steve said. "If there's something we need to get to at 5 p.m., we can make it. If its something at 7 p.m., we can make that...I enjoy farming with the robot. You aren't tied down."