Letting Bessie be her own boss

Farm Forum

ETHAN – At Gary and Amy Blase’s dairy farm, the cows choose when to be milked.

“They set their own schedule,” Amy Blase said. “They eat and lay down and milk when they feel like doing it.” Four robotic milking machines run all day, every day at the Blases’ dairy farm, giving the family’s 200 cows the ability to eat, drink, rest or be milked whenever they desire.

Gary and Amy Blase, who both have been in the dairy business for more than 40 years, had the robotic milkers installed last June with hopes of limiting how much they rely on hired help and reducing the amount of time they themselves spend milking cows.

“We thought we could take advantage of the modern technology,” Gary Blase said.

On June 8, more than 100 people came to the Blases’ dairy farm to take a look at the robotic milkers at an event held by Ag United as part of national dairy month. The Blases are just the second dairy farmers in South Dakota to have robotic milkers.

The transition from manual labor to robotic milkers was, at first, a drastic change for the couple and their cows.

“There is so much technology there,” Amy Blase said. “It took a few months of learning to deal with it all.” As each machine costs about $200,000, the transition wasn’t cheap either. But, the Blases are confident the machines will eventually increase milk production and, in turn, their profits.

“It’s an investment,” Gary Blase said. “It takes a little while to pay back something like that. We knew that going in.”

The Blase’s cows, which are housed in freestall barns, also needed some time to get used to the robotic milkers and their new milking routine.

“It definitely took them a couple weeks to get them comfortable with going through,” Amy Blase said. “They really like them once they know them.”

Each of the Blases’ 200 cows gives about 75 pounds of milk per day, according to Gary Blase.

Normally, the Blases would need to collect that milk themselves or hire people to do it for them. But, with robotic milkers to tend to the cows, the couple has the chance to get away from the farm more often than in the past.

“We think we can have a little bit more time to go do something else besides milk cows all day long, every day,” Gary Blase said.

Steve Landman, of Lely Inc., was at the Blases’ farm on June 8 to explain the technology behind the machines. Lely Inc. is one of just a few companies that manufacture robotic milkers.

When a cow approaches the robotic milker — attracted by food at the far end of the milking pen — the machine is able to determine the cow’s exact location using a camera, a laser system and a weight-sensitive platform, Landman said.

Once the machine detects the cow’s location, a robotic arm swings down below the cow and eventually attaches itself to the udder, he said, and then the milking process begins.

The design of the machine allows cows to choose for themselves when they want to come to the machine and be milked, Landman said.

“They choose to be fed,” he said, “and during their feeding, they get milked,”

During milking, the machine monitors several characteristics of the milk, including color and temperature, to give the farmer information about the health of the cow, Landman said. The robotic milkers are also designed to be comfortable, he added.

“Even though it’s a machine, it’s gentle,” he said.

Though the Blases have heavily invested in robotic milkers, they’re unsure if the machines will eventually become the norm for dairies across the country.

“That’s the beauty of being a farmer,” Gary Blase said. “Everybody can make their own decisions on what they think is best for their own farm.”