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Happy cows live at a robotic dairy

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Dairy Cows
Nussbaum Farm

Cows at the Nussbaum Farm, near Garretson, South Dakota, wear transmitters on their necks help collect over 140 different bits of information on the cows at the robotic dairy. (Journal photo by Jennifer Carrico.)

Using robots sounds like something out of an episode of “The Jetsons,” but it’s reality for dairy producers around the world.

Brad and Monica Nussbaum of Garretson, South Dakota, knew they needed to make changes to their dairy, and after considering many options, they decided to build a barn equipped with two robot milkers and a robot to push feed up for the cows.

They decided this would be the perfect fit for the family farm run by Brad, Monica and their two daughters, Stephanie and Brittany.

“We visited all kinds of dairies and decided this was our best option,” said Monica. “Our daughter, Brittany, had toured several robot barns in Europe and thought they would work for us. We wanted it to be a one-man or woman barn, since there’s three of us women working here.”

Once they decided to build a barn with robot milking, they had to look at every detail, which included where to build the barn.

“We wanted to make sure we had the barn in the right spot to ensure the air would move through it and our cows would be comfortable,” said Brad.

Monica explained how she, Brad, Stephanie and Brittany were each given a wind spinner to find where the best air movement was in the area where they planned to put the barn. It ended up that where they all stopped is now the four corners of the barn.

“I’m sure building engineers wouldn’t have done it the way we did, but we are definitely pleased with the results,” said Monica. “And the cows are too.”

The construction of the barn wasn’t completed quite as quickly as they had hoped, which resulted in more movement of cows at first, but now the cows are in comfort in the barn that includes waterbed stalls.

The Nussbaums started milking their 145 cows in March 2014. Prior to having the robots they milked about 90 cows in a stall barn.

“When we decided to build this barn, we ramped up our herd by purchasing some heifers and breeding cows to female semen,” said Brad.

The barn has a slatted floor and sets on a cement pit. When the pit is emptied, the manure is used for fertilizer on their crop ground. Brad said the quality of the manure fertilizer is better than if they would have built a lagoon because none of the manure soaks into the ground since it’s in a cement pit.

“Not only would the lagoon have cost us more to build because of our soil type, but it also would have taken more space. Cost-wise, it would have been similar, so having a manure pit has more benefits for us,” said Brad.

One wall of the barn has fans to continue to move air through the barn. When the fans are running in the barn, they are generally on low and often times not even needed because of such great air movement.


The Nussbaums wanted to make sure their new system was as efficient as possible. The water used to cool the milk is then put in a cistern and cow waters are filled with that cistern.

“We like to say that 1 gallon of water is used three ways—for the cows to drink, to produce milk and to cool milk,” said Monica.

Another way they save is by letting sunlight heat and light the barn. Clear polycarbonate was put on the north side of the barn to let sunlight in and helps heat the barn in the winter. Studies show that dairy cows need 15 candles of light each day. The Nussbaum barn has 600 candles of light if all the lights are on during a sunny day. Often times, they leave the lights off, which saves them money as well.

It was determined that two robot milkers would be the right number for a herd their size. Each cow can go through the robot up to six times per day. The robot works similar to a calf, which Monica said is one of the perks of this kind of system.

“We like that the way the robot works is so natural. It was designed by a beef producer to simulate like a calf nursing. You will see the machine bump the cow, just like a calf does when it nurses,” said Monica.

The machine will first spray the udder with water and then brushes will clean the teats. The brush arm then swings back out of the way in order for the milking machine to hook up to the udder. The machine bumps the cow to imitate a calf sucking and then laser lights help to find the teats and attached the machine. Once milk flow ceases from a quarter of the udder, the machine releases from that teat.

At the same time the cow is being milked, she is fed a partial mixed pelleted ration in a trough in the front of the robot. She is fed this at a certain rate so the cow is content the entire time she is milked depending on where she is at in her lactation cycle. The cow’s total feed is spread out over the number of times she goes through the robot per day. Cows also have access to a silage mix while they are in the barn. A robot is also used to push up feed in the feed alley.

Cows wear a numbered monitor on their neck that is read by a computer when they enter the robotic milker. This correlates with the computer to give complete records for each cow. The records show milk production and also performance. Each time the cow enters the robot she is weighed so she can be monitored for health. The neck monitor also gives an individual body temperature, rumination through cud chewing and is a pedometer.

“There are over 140 pieces of information on each cow on our computer,” said Monica.

When a cow is fresh, or just had a calf; or if she is being treated, the milk cannot go into the bulk tank. They program into the computer that the cow’s milk must be separated. The machine automatically puts the milk into a holding bucket so it’s not mixed in with the rest. After a fresh cow or treated cow is milked, the machine automatically is cleaned.

“The robots run 24 hours per day, but we have it set up to go through the cleaning cycle at noon and midnight,” said Brad.

The compressor to run the milking machines is housed in a room upstairs from the main barn office and milk room. In the winter the outside doors are kept closed and the heat from the compressor warms the office area. During the summer, the upstairs doors can be left open to blow the heat outside.

Water and electrical lines were put on the outside of the walls in order for easier access to troubleshoot and repair a water problem or stray voltage problem.

The herd

The Nussbaums have a mostly closed herd consisting of mostly Holsteins and a few Jerseys that were purchased by the girls as show animals. All cows are artificially inseminated. Bulls used are selected on milk and fat numbers as well as a high type score. They breed for good feet and legs and longevity in their herd.

“We have had cows for up to 12 years, but most are here an average of five years,” said Brad. “We are very familiar with our cow families and know what to expect from them.”

Monica said they spend about the same amount of time in the barn as they did prior to having the robots, but now they spend more time in the management of their cows and aren’t spending all that time in the parlor. The work with the cows is less labor intensive, and therefore, the cows are happier.

Cows go through the robots on their own and know when they are ready for milking. Brad said training new heifers to go through the machine can be challenging at times, but with the help of veteran cows, the heifers are trained prior to having their first calf and go through the robot and are given a “treat” of feed without being milked. Then when it is time for them to be milked, it’s a bit easier to get them through.

When cows are dried up and sent to the pregnant pen to be dry for a time period, prior to calving again, their feed amount is slowed down while milking, which makes the drying up period easier.

Cows are on a strict health protocol, which the Nussbaums set up with their veterinarian. The computer reminds them when a cow needs to be vaccinated.

“We don’t want to vaccinate all of the cows at the same time because that would cause a large amount of milk production loss,” said Brad. “The strongest vaccinations are given to the cows when they are dried up in order to prevent that loss.”

Cows calve in a transition pen and the cow is allowed to clean the calf before the calf is moved to another pen. The calf is given colostrum and vaccinated, as well as given an identification tag. All heifer calves are kept and bull calves out of the best producing cows are kept as bulls. Those calves are fed milk for two to three months before they move on to dry feed and group lots. Steer calves are sold to a neighbor who feeds them out.

One bull is kept to be turned out with yearling heifers after they are synchronized and bred. They also sell several bulls to other dairy producers.

Stephanie and Brittany also enjoy showing their cows and have been successful at the Central Plains Regional fair, Sioux Falls Empire Fair, South Dakota State Fair and they also have traveled to the World Dairy Expo.

“Our show cows aren’t taken care of any differently than the rest of the cows. They might be taken out and given a bath and clipped a few days before the show, but we usually load them on the trailer straight out of the barn,” said Brad. “We like to take good care of our cows and they like it too.”

Monica said the biggest challenge of having the new system is to retrain the people involved. “The cows made and easy transition. It was harder for us since we are creatures of habit,” she said.

The benefits greatly outnumber the challenges, and the Nussbaums are confident they made the right choice by going with the robotic dairy because they have a very hygienic system and the cows are happy because good animal husbandry is used.

“Production overall is up 20 pounds per cow. The cows are happy and our system is more efficient. It’s really a win-win situation for us and the cows,” said Brad.

Jennifer Carrico can be reached at 515-833-2120 or jcarrico@hpj.com.

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