Robotic milkers work well for Decorah couple
By Jean Caspers-Simmet
Date Modified: 12/15/2011 10:52 AM
DECORAH, Iowa — Alan and Ruth Hageman have one regret about their robotic milking system and that is that they didn't put it in sooner.
The couple turned milking over to robots on Sept. 20.
"It's been good," Ruth said. "We haven't been stressed."
The family built a 115-stall, tunnel-ventilated, fully-insulated free-stall barn with two Lely Astronaut robots on their farm southeast of Decorah. Brickl Bros of New Salem, Wis., was the contractor for the building, and Fitzgerald Inc. of Elkader put in the robotic milking system.
The couple shared their experiences at Northeast Iowa Community College's recent Midwest Dairy School for Exploring Robotics at the Dairy Center at Calmar.
"Our time is more flexible," Alan said. "It's less stressful and all around easier."
The Hagemans currently milk 107 cows, mostly Holsteins,, and by the beginning of the year will be milking 140.
"We were milking in a 57-stall tie-stall barn, and it was falling apart," Ruth said.
Each milking required the labor of Alan and Ruth plus Scott, 18, and Carla, 16.
"Scott just graduated from high school and he wanted to milk and to do that we needed to expand," Alan said. "There was no way we could expand in our current barn because there was no place to go. We thought about putting a parlor in the existing barn and putting up a free-stall barn beside it but that wasn't going to work, either."
Ruth suggested robots, and Alan admits that at first he laughed.
"He didn't take me seriously at all," Ruth said.
After mulling it over for about a month, Alan decided maybe Ruth was right. About that time, they read a newspaper article about Doug Heintz and how satisfied he was with the robots he installed on his Caledonia dairy farm. Ruth is from Caledonia.
"He started to believe me," Ruth said.
They toured a Kasson, Minn., farm that was milking with a robot.
"After we saw that, we said, 'That's what we're doing,' " Alan said. "They didn't have picture-perfect cows and the robot was working. Their cows were like our cows, and I figured if it milked those cows, it could milk our cows. It works."
Since they started milking with the robots, Ruth returned to work full-time at Veteran's Memorial Hospital in Waukon.
"Instead of putting those hours in the barn milking, I'm working at the hospital," Ruth said. "For us, it's an income increase."
The cows have adapted well to the robots. One old cow has an udder that's too low for the robot, and they milk her in the old barn. A young heifer's udder is too high, so Scott watches for her and helps attach the cups.
Alan said people considering a robot need to think about why they want to make the change.
"If you're just plain tired of milking cows, you don't want a robot," he said. "We didn't have the time we needed to manage our cows, calves and crops. Now we can spend more time doing those things. You still put the time in, it's just more flexible."