RAFT RIVER, Idaho — Todd Webb is a fifth-generation dairy producer, having learned the business from his father, who milked cows by hand like his father before him.
There have been many changes to the operation over the decades, and Heglar Creek Dairy is on the precipice of another — a move to robotic milking.
A couple of years ago, Webb and his partners — brothers Scott Webb and Mark Webb and longtime neighbor Mike Garner — were at a crossroads with the 2,000-cow dairy. The milking barn was showing its age, pens needed maintenance and a tight labor market was a growing issue.
“We were trying to decide where we were going with the dairy,” Todd Webb said.
It was a question of whether to expand or let the dairy run its course and eventually sell, he said.
Weighing the options led them to contact Lely, a Dutch company that manufactures automated systems for dairies worldwide. Lely is one of several companies that manufacture robotic systems for dairies.
Soon after, he and his partners jumped on a plane to look at robotic dairies in the Midwest. That experience, as well as visits to many more robotic dairies and a lot of research, convinced them.
“We decided we wanted to go into robotics,” he said.
As is the case at most U.S. dairies, labor had become a huge issue. Competition from other industries in a tight labor market made it harder to keep workers and caused wages to skyrocket. While going robotic would also raise wages, it would require fewer workers and reduce overall labor costs by 60 to 70 percent.
The savings don’t fully cover the investment in robotic milkers — but if wages go up another couple of dollars, the savings would cover it, Webb said.
“But it’s not just about reducing labor costs,” he said.
There are other reasons the partners decided to go robotic. Improved milk production, better efficiency and cow health are a few. In addition, the technology has evolved beyond its original application for smaller dairies and costs have come down, he said.
“In the last couple of years, the technology has turned the corner and we’re seeing extreme benefits in large operations,” he said.
The technology has evolved to a point that robotic milkers are fast and efficient — and they can collect much more information on individual cows than a conventional dairy, he said.
Making the switch
The partners have built a new 160,000-square-foot, climate-controlled, energy- and water-efficient facility overlooking the conventional dairy. Half of their herd will be housed and milked in the new facility, which will be equipped with 18 robots that can each milk an average of 60 cows each three times a day.
The facility is divided into six living areas with 180 cows and three robots in each. There the cows can freely eat, relax on water beds and head to the robotic milker when they’re ready. The cows are fitted with electronic collars that collect data around the clock and feed information to the milking robots.
When the cow comes to be milked, the robot identifies her and her production when last milked. If she’s due for another milking — with the robot calculating the time it would take her to produce her potential — she is let into the milker. Tasty grain pellets are released according to her production.
How often she is milked depends on her lactation. It can range from twice a day to five times a day, Webb said.
“The robot is doing the math all the time,” he said.
It will only let her in if she needs to be milked. If she doesn’t and has only come back for feed pellets, it will turn her away, he said.
“It’s making those determinations,” he said.
It’s also collecting and storing information and notifies the appropriate person if there’s a problem, such as not being able to hook up the milking apparatus.
“It has to notify us when it’s not working right, and we can dictate what we want to be notified about and who it goes to,” he said.
Detailed dataWhen cows are accepted into the milker, the robot cleans and stimulates the teats and attaches the milking apparatus with the aid of a laser eye.
The robot can measure the quantity and characteristics of the milk collected in each quarter and can detect temperature in any quarter. It also can detect blood in the milk, dumping that milk, and it measures the somatic cell level and diverts the milk to a calf-milk tank if the level is too high.
In addition, the robot will sort the cows with elevated temperatures, blood in the milk or elevated levels of somatic cells out of the herd after milking and into a pen for hospital staff to address.
Because it also monitors the chemical properties of the milk, it can detect subclinical mastitis and sorts out those cows as well.
“Those are things that a robot can do that you can’t do on a conventional dairy. It’s just turning out to be an incredible management tool,” he said.
In a conventional barn, those things wouldn’t be detected for days. But with the robots, issues are detected immediately. Treatments can be less invasive, and it can reduce the use of antibiotics and reduce medical costs, he said.
The collars also detect when the cow is eating, lying down or moving around. Increased activity typically denotes a cow is in heat and when that information goes through the robot, the robot sorts it to the waiting pen to be bred.
“The robot monitors cows and milk. Whatever we put in the computer, the robot will manage for that. And quite honestly the robot does a better job at doing that,” he said.
In addition to moving to robotics, the partners saw an opportunity to be a Lely dealer and launched Snake River Robotics.
“It fit into our diversification model,” Webb said.
They had toyed with the idea of diversification 10 to 15 years ago and decided to get serious about it five or six years ago, he said.
In addition to the dairy, the partners own and operate Heglar Creek Electric, Heglar Creek Cattle and Raft River Sod. Snake River Robotics includes one more partner, Jared Simkins.
The cows at Heglar Creek will start moving into their new digs any day, and the longer term plan is to build another robotic facility for the other half of the herd.
The partners are banking on research that shows lowering cows’ stress results in higher productivity, better health, a longer life span, lower cull rates and more pregnancies on average, Webb said.
The operation is geared for calm, comfortable and healthy cows, and keeping people and equipment out of the facility as much as possible is an important factor, he said.
“We don’t want to stress the cows any more than we have to,” he said.
When asked what he thought his father, now deceased, would think of cow waterbeds and robotic milkers, Webb laughed.
“He’d probably shake his head a little bit then think it’s great. He loved to see new ideas and new things,” he said.