Over the last decade, the only component of milking that dairy farmers haven't seen change are the cows. Upgrades to milking systems and equipment overrun the industry in efforts to net bigger returns.
While robotic milkers have allowed bigger dairy operations to cut down on the cost of labor, automated milking parlor systems and detacher products have given lesser-staffed farms the opportunity to increase efficiency and monitor herds more closely.
For Richard and Carol Laska, owners of the Breezy Point Dairy Farm in Winona, Minn., the need to modernize never felt urgent. The couple has been experiencing good returns since they bought the farm from Richard's parents in 1987. At that time, the herd averaged about 60 cows, and milking was done in a tie-stall barn built in the 1930s.
A double-eight parallel swing parlor was added onto the old stall barn in 1999, and in 2010, a three-row free stall barn with 127 stalls and a larger bulk tank were built, increasing the herd to 125 cows. The farm has since been recognized for its quality of milk and high production, and the Laskas were named by the Purebred Dairy Cattle Association (PDCA) as the Distinguished Breeders of Minnesota in 2015.
The farm's only other full-time employee, son-in-law Dan Thorman, was hired by the Laskas after he married their daughter, Jenelle, in 2010. Thorman is a dairy farmer from southeast Wisconsin, and ag business graduate from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls.
But the dairy farm located deep in the blufflands of Winona got its most technological renovation this past winter, when an AIC-Waikato Swing Arm Milking System was installed with eight automated Expresso Detachers.
"We've always had a pretty good (somatic) cell count," said Richard Laska. "But it's improved some now with the new equipment. It does a pretty good job of milking the cows, and its more consistent than what we had before."
Laska said the old detachers, which compiled no data, were more than 20 years old and started to lack consistency. The new detachers compile a range of statistics including milk weight, flow rate, average pounds per minute, peak milk flow, milk temperature and more. The total cost for the swing arm and tracking system was a little more than $20,000.
Laska said that some of the data is more useful than others, like temperature, which can be used to determine when a cow is not well. A temperature level is set under the system's control tracker so that if a cow's milk temperature measures above it, the particular unit the cow is on will display a flashing yellow light.
"Once you see those high temperatures, you can right away go and check them out, and investigate what's wrong," said Laska.
The data is collected by a tracking box and can be viewed on a laptop computer inside the milking parlor, which is an additional expense that Laska saw as essential for getting the most out of the system.
The only previous data the farm got from its herd came once a month, when Dairy Herd Improvement (DHI) ran its monthly inspection tests. DHI still conducts the tests, in which a milk sample is taken and checked for cell counts and components. The more recent updates, which can be broken down to each individual cow, have allowed Laska and Thorman to keep on top of any issues that can potentially complicate the milking process.
"If you do a better job of milking out the cow, you're going to have less mastitis issues," said Laska, referring to a common infection to dairy cattle. "Ultimately when you have less health issues and closer monitoring, it's going to help the cows produce more."
Although there are other companies that offer similar kinds of automatic systems, Laska said they chose the AIC-Waikato brand because the company seems to understand the farmers' perspective the most, by allowing them to set their own benchmarks and troubleshoot their own system. Laska said with margins already slim, the cost for technical support trips was out of the question.
"With today's milk prices, being user-friendly to the point where farmers can change settings without having to rely on the dealership, it's huge," said Marv Toogood, Central Plains regional sales manager for AIC-Waikato. "Instead of paying for labor and trip rate for them to come out and adjust it, they can do it themselves right on the unit."
Systems like the one at Breezy Point would be especially helpful with a bigger staff, said Laska, because it would be a good way for owners to monitor what kind of job the staff is doing. That's not the case with their operation, though, as Laska, Thorman and their wives handle all the labor themselves. Laska said a slow week would consist of him and Thorman both working about 80 hours.
Laska said the new system doesn't allow for the staff to work fewer hours or lose less sleep, but it does cut down on unforseen events.
"It's saved us just a little bit of milking time," said Laska "But it's definitely made for a less frustrating milking process."