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Positioned for profitability

Robotic milkers give two East Tennessee dairymen hope for viability
Story and photos by: Glen Liford 5/26/2020


The ups and downs of the dairy industry have not put a damper Riley Mason’s enthusiasm for his profession. The young dairyman hopes to continue a career in the business as the fourth generation of his family to operate the family dairy in the New Harmony Community near Niota in McMinn County.
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As dairy producers look for ways to become more efficient in the face of challenges the industry is facing, some are turning to technology for help. In the last two years, two McMinn Count producers have installed robotic milkers in an effort to improve their operations. 

Riley Mason of the Mt. Harmony Community and Jim Farr of Niota, installed DeLaval Voluntary Milking Systems purchased from AgCentral Farmers Co-op in Athens. The Co-op is a dealer for the DeLaval product and offers the equipment through its dairy service. 

The technology automates the milking process, explains Rick Barham, AgCentral Farmers Co-op livestock specialist and sales manager. The system allows a dairy producer to get by with less labor, become more efficient, maintain healthier cows, and often increase quality and production. 

An RFID tags on each milk cow allow it to enter the milking parlor where the robotic stations milk the animals while they are fed according to their production. 

The goal is for the herd to average three milking per day, though some high-production cows may be milked more often. Currently, the Mason herd averages 2.9 milkings per day. 

After the system is installed, workers bring in the cows to the stations and map each animal’s udders, so the machine can easily identify the location of the teats on each cow. 

“During the first two milkings, you basically attach the t-cups by hand,” he says. “Then using a laser device, you begin mapping the cow’s udder. The next milking, the machine is put on ‘auto’ and the robot takes over. Over the next two or three milkings, you may have to make adjustments when the cow moves around, which may cause the machine not to attach exactly right. But after that, the cows take to them well.” 

The system also provides producers information about individual cows, allowing them to catch and correct potential problems. For example, the machines can identify when a cow goes into heat, detect when she should be bred. It also flags signs of health issues at early stages, allowing the farmer to catch potential illnesses such as mastititis, before they take hold, making them much easier to treat. 

“You think you know stuff about cows, but I’m learning more about my herd every day,” says Riley, who was profiled in The Cooperator’s “Every Farmer Has a Story” in October/November 2019. “It gives you so much information. It really is incredible.”

Riley, a 21-year-old dairyman, is the sixth generation of his family to take up the dairy tradition. He gets help from his dad, Matt, and his grandmother, Janette, too. 

The Masons have three robotic milkers housed in a tunnel-ventilation barn for optimum cow comfort. The barn was completed in 2019, and with the installation of the DVMS, the family is experiencing many of the expected benefits from the construction. Since changing to the robotic milkers, production for the Mason milking herd of 165 cows is up 15 percent or more, says Riley. 

“We expected an increase,” he says. “And we think we can go higher, due to all the improvements, not just the robots. We have room to grow for sure.”

The statistic of which Riley is most proud is the herd’s somatic cell count, which is averaging between 142,000 and 175,000, a number he says he “could never have imagined.” 

The system’s information on each cow allows Riley to identify cows that are developing problems like mastitis so he can begin treatment immediately.

“The cows are much healthier, and much calmer,” he says. 

Jim Farr recently installed the DVMS equipment and completed an addition to a free-stall barn built in the early 1990s. The system has only been in use since early January, so he says both the cows and the people are still getting used to it. He started the dairy in 1989 and now operates it with his son, Stephen, and a couple of employees.

“When we opened up, we had 165 cows in the barn,” says Jim. “Since then, we’ve added close to 60 cows and removed some dry cows. The original herd is doing well, and we’re still working with the rest. We’re up to 210 cows today.”

The cows are averaging nearly three milkings a day. 

Adustments were made to the system to

allow higher producing cows more visits to the milking parlor. The animals have accepted the robots and are now much calmer, says Jim.

“They really took to it,” he says. “A stranger could hardly walk down the alleys without upsetting the cows. Now they’re much more relaxed.”

Jim was born and raised in East Chicago, where he worked in a steel mill. His parents were originally from East Tennessee and had moved north for work in the 1950s. At 21, Jim decided he wanted to farm. He began looking for property to buy. He married his wife, Rose, in June 1989, and the couple moved 600 miles to Tennessee in July. 

“I looked at land in Indiana, but it was $4,000 an acre,” he says. “In Tennessee, I found it for $800 an acre. I figured I could buy a whole lot more land, or at least more rocks, in Tennessee.”

Last year, he started looking at the DVMS with an eye toward the decreased labor required and the potential for increased production. 

“It was hard enough to keep labor,” he says. “And I really wanted to go to milking three times a day.”

Like Riley, Jim says he is realizing the value of the wealth of information the system provides to help him more effectively manage the herd, he says. Similar to a Fitbit for a human, the computers can monitor details like how many steps the cows take each day. 

“When you see one is not coming into the parlor, you know to go check on her,” says Jim. 

The robotic systems require a pelleted feed and the Co-op Robot 18 ration was developed specifically for use with robotic milkers by Tennessee Farmers Cooperative Nutrionist Todd Steen in conjunction with AgCentral. It contains 18 percent protein and is caramel flavored for added palatability. 

“They eat it very well,” says Jim, who is feeding an average of 9 pounds per head each day. 

Both dairymen stress the investment in the systems is significant, and they recognize the systems are not a cure for all the challenges and problems associated with dairying these days. They are optimistic, however, that the system gives them a chance at the efficiency that dairying requires and the opportunity to be profitable.

“Technology can be a pain sometimes, but it can really help you, too,” says Riley. “I love farming, and this technology is making it easier.”

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