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Site work starts for Iowa Robotic Dairy Center at Calmar

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 01/07/2013 1:59 PM

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CALMAR, Iowa —Excavation and earth work have started for a new robotic milking center and free-stall barn expansion at the Dairy Center at Northeast Iowa Community College at Calmar.

The $1.5 million project is a partnership between the community college and the Northeast Iowa Community-Based Dairy Foundation.

The addition will be on the south side of the current free-stall barn located south of NICC's campus.

The three-row free-stall barn will be expanded to six rows. Iowa's Robotic Dairy Center will be built on the south end. Two Lely A4 automated milking systems will be installed. One will milk registered Jerseys, and the other high-genetic registered Holsteins.

Brickl Bros. Inc., who designed the original Dairy Center, did the concept design. Engineering plans are under way and bids for the structure will be let this winter. The bid for the robots was awarded to Fitzgerald Inc. of Elkader.

"We're making some improvements to showcase the best practices within the industry," said Megan Kregel, Dairy Center coordinator.

Half the Dairy Foundation herd will be milked by robots, and the other half will be milked in the current parlor.

A visitor center that includes a classroom/board room will be equipped with observation windows so visitors can see cows in the barn and cows being milked by the robots.

"Agro-tourism will be a big part of this," said Kregel. "Dairy producers who are considering robots will be able to come at any time and observe, and we also want the general public to come and see where their milk comes from and how well we treat our cows."

"We want them to look at our facilities and say, 'Wow,' " said Dave Lawstuen, NICC dairy science instructor and Operations Committee chairman.

With the renovation, the Dairy Center herd will increase from 250 to 300 head.

"We've grown over the years, and we're making room for the cows we have," Lawstuen said. "We will buy more Jerseys."

The barn expansion will consist of 65 45-inch free-stalls for Jerseys and 59, 51-inch stalls for the Holsteins. Bedding will be sand. The free-stall barn will be tunnel ventilated. The Dairy Foundation's plan includes renovating the existing facilities to sand bedding. An automated feed pusher, a Lely Juno, will be used.

"Robots are tailor-made for the family farm dairies in the Midwest,'' Lawstuen said. "This new technology provides lifestyle improvements as well as better milk quality and cow comfort."

The goal is to start construction by mid-March and have the robots operating by fall 2013.

"That's why we are doing the site work now," said John Noel, NICC vice president of finance and administration.

The Dairy Foundation will work with the NICC Foundation to secure industry partnerships to pay for the project, Kregel said. Community and dairy producer support will also be sought.

Because the facilities will be used to train students, some funds will come from the college. Noel said NICC has money set aside for equipment and also has funding for construction and maintenance of laboratories.

Current project partners are Fitzgerald Inc., Lely, NICC and support from Midwest Dairy Association and the Iowa Area Development Group.

About 100 NICC students annually will be exposed to the technology and receive hands-on training for career opportunities through the dairy science program and the new large animal veterinary technician program, Lawstuen said. Students will be trained to work on dairy farms and to be part of the new robotic milking industry.