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Robotic technology allows Mar Gold Guernseys to operate against the odds

In 2002, Marlane Williams moved from Florida back to her native Missouri for a fresh start. She had a new full-time job as a healthcare facility administrator. She bought a 1920s farmhouse in Pierce City with 40 acres, sight unseen. She wanted her own dairy farm—even if it meant having to do it by herself.

“When I first moved here, I’m sure a lot of people thought, ‘What is this young blonde woman from Florida going to do with dairy cows and a full-time job?’” Williams said. “Well, they saw my determination, and they don’t think a thing about it anymore. I’m just like all the rest of the dairy producers left in the area, trying to do what it takes to do what you love.”

Growing up on a dairy farm in Renick, Mo., Williams forged a bond with her mother, Judy Kirchhoff, milking Guernseys. They quit milking cows in 1977, but Williams never lost her passion for dairying.

“My siblings did other chores on the farm, but I loved milking and spending that time with my mother,” Williams said. “Dairy is in my blood. You either love it or hate it, because you don’t get into this business for the money.”

Only 33% of dairy farmers are female, a hurdle that never hindered Williams’ drive to own a dairy. Mar Gold Guernseys began as a Grade C operation with only eight cows in December 2002.

“As small as it was, I was just so happy because I finally had my dairy farm that I had wanted for so many years,” Williams said.

Within five years, Mar Gold was upgraded to a Grade A dairy with 60 Guern­seys in the herd. Williams used 10 milking stanchions before modifying the barn and installing a double-6 herringbone parlor in 2012. Her vision was taking shape, but there were a few bumps along the way.

Milking before and after her full-time job and finding time to do chores and general mainte­nance, Williams discovered that her dairy dream left no time for sleep. Weekends were also filled with farm tasks almost around the clock. To provide some relief, she hired milkers for the morning shift, but that added another layer of complications into the mix.

“The snow was waist deep, and the two people who were helping me were threatening to quit,” Williams said. “I knew I could not continue this way. My op­tions were to quit my job and milk full time, get rid of my dairy, or keep my full-time job and get a robot.”

Six years ago, Williams approached John King, president of Seneca Dairy Supply, a dairy equipment dealer in Neosho, Mo., with her idea about robotic milking.

“Labor to milk the cows was a real concern, creating prob­lems when the hired help was unable or failed to show up,” King said. “She thought robot milking might be the answer, and thus the process began.”

King worked with Williams to find the right solution. They decided that the Lely Astronaut A4 robotic milking system would provide the most advanced technology and suit her needs. The system also allows the cows to be on their own schedule.

“I was the first one in southwest Missouri (to own a robotic milking system) and the second one in Missouri,” Williams said.

After the initial decision to go robotic and months of research on how the technology would work, it took almost a year to see the idea come to fruition. The barn had to be modified again, and the high-tech system was installed. 

“The day we moved Marlane’s cows to the robot began three days of continually pushing cows through the system,” King said. “We all took shifts.”

At first, the transition was anything but easy, Williams said, re­flecting on those early days of switching to robotic technology.

“They told me it was going to be three days of hell, three weeks of questioning the decision, and then at three months, it will be OK,” she said. “We started with 45 cows to lighten the workload and worked 24 hours a day for the first three days. After three weeks, I was thinking, ‘Can I return this thing and just go back to my old barn?’”

The process gets better as the cows learn there is a reward of feed in the robot, said King.

“The Lely concept is cow comfort, allowing her to do what is natural—milking, feeding, resting, going to water—thus creating a stress-free environment,” he said. “Profitability and sustainability are the goals.”

Seeing the robotic milker working inside a barn built in the 1920s is quite astonishing, cobwebs and all. The sooth­ing symphony of buzzing, pumping, spraying and gushing is accompanied by red laser lights lining up the cow to the machine. It is similar to being in an automatic car wash, where the driver sits back and relaxes while the machine does all the work.

The robot does everything a traditional milking system does and more. The cow enters the station and is fed pellets while the milking process begins. The robotic arm goes into action, first cleaning the teats with brushes, sanitizing the area and blowing air to dry them. Using the laser as a guide, the teat cups are attached, and milking begins.

A computer panel shows how much milk is flowing from each of the four quarters. Milk flow is continuously moni­tored by the machine, and when the output from a quarter drops below a certain level, the teat cup will disconnect. Once milking is complete, the teats are cleaned again and sprayed with iodine.

Cows can enter the milk barn when they choose, day or night. Williams sees a heavy milking period between 11 p.m. and 2 a.m.

“We hope to achieve 2.7 to 3.2 average milk­ings a day per cow,” King said.

Williams uses a mobile app to check the milk­ing machine gauges when she is not in the barn. The system allows her to manage the Guernsey herd remotely, feed and milk the cows, and cold store the milk so it’s ready for pickup. The tech­nology also monitors cow health. 

“You are able to manage your cows better,” Williams said.

Nutrition is a key part of that management. Mar Gold’s Guernseys are fed MFA Dairy Select pellets while they are milked. Like most MFA dairy feeds, it has chelated min­erals for easy absorption; buffer to help balance rumen pH; vitamin E, zinc and selenium for animal health; and yeasts and fermentation extracts for improved digestion.

“Feed is an excellent motivator for cows,” said Chuck Hubbert, MFA key account manager who has worked with Williams for more than 10 years. “MFA Dairy Select is a clean pellet that runs through her robot nicely. Marlane switched to pellets before the installing robot to help transition the cows more easily.”

Williams also uses MFA 22/20 milk replacer for her baby calves and weans them on MFA Stand Out calf starter. Eventually, she switches them to a commodity blend that contains MFA Super 10 mineral. Dry cows and larger heifers get another commodity blend that contains MFA Dry Cow Mineral, extra yeast and vitamin E.

All of the rations contain ClariFly, a feed-through larvi­cide that kills flies before they can become biting, annoying, disease-carrying adults. Flies con­tribute to serious losses for livestock producers each year by spreading disease, feeding on animals, and greatly decreasing productivity—espe­cially in dairies. ClariFly’s formulation specifically targets stable flies and house flies, the two most economically damaging pests for dairy producers.

“ClariFly does a great job preventing flies from developing into adults and causing problems,” Hubbert said.

Any cow on the farm with a green halter is in training. Before heifers start milking, Williams sends them into the barn to feed and hear the robot, so they get accustomed to the system. 

Each cow wears an electronic responder around her neck, and the robot’s computer reads the data each time she enters the stall. This gives Williams an overview of each cow’s health, milk yield, lactation status and history.

“I get a plethora of reports,” Williams said, adding that she reviews the reports each weeknight and looks at them twice a day on weekends so she can better serve her Guernseys.

Today, counting the lactating cows, dry cows, heifers and calves, Williams’ herd size runs from 150 to about 175 regis­tered Guernseys. As she walks through the pastures, her strong bond with the cows is evident. The docile animals follow her as she greets each one with a “pretty girl” or “sweet mama.”

“Marlane is very passionate about dairying,” Hubbert said. “She loves her cows.”

Over the past 20 years, Williams’ dream of owning a dairy farm has taken many different twists and turns, but, with the help of technology, her operation is thriving today.

“The switch to the robotic milking system has really been a lifestyle change,” said Williams. “The stress of relying on hired help is gone. Metabolic issues such as ketosis and milk fever are also reduced. The cows seem to breed back sooner, which may be due to less stress on them.”

Even King, whose business deals in robotic equipment, admits he was skeptical at first about whether the technology would find widespread acceptance. Its success at Mar Gold Guernseys has helped change his mind.

“Because of the financial investment, I believed that robot milkers were only being purchased by those who could afford them,” King said. “I soon began to realize the economic benefits—increased milk production and feed efficiencies as well as labor savings. You know that your cows are being milked around the clock. I believe robotic milking will have a significant role in the future of dairying.” 

Guernsey: The Golden Breed

With its all-Guernsey herd, Mar Gold Dairy continues a long tradition that began more than 1,000 years ago. The breed originated on the Isle of Guernsey, located off the coast of Normandy, France. Around 960 AD, Robert Duke of Normandy sent monks to the island to educate the natives on how to cultivate the soil and defend the land. The monks brought with them the best bloodlines of French cattle and devel­oped the Guernsey from a mix of Brindle cattle, also known as Alder­neys, and the Froment du Leon.

The breed made its debut in the U.S. in 1840 when three Alderney cows were brought to New York, followed by a bull and two heifers from the Isle of Guernsey. These animals were the original stock of a great majority of the Guernseys that make up the breed’s national herd today.

The American Guernsey Cattle Club was formed in 1877 to register and maintain genetic information on the breed. Since then, the organi­zation has registered over 3 million Guernseys.

The Guernsey cow is known for producing high-butterfat, high-pro­tein milk with a high concentration of beta carotene. They do this while consuming 20% to 30% less feed per pound of milk produced than larger dairy breeds.

Guernseys are also excellent grazers that easily and efficiently work well in pasture-based milk production. They’re also known for mild temperament and calving ease.

Today, even as numbers decrease across the country in most all dairy breeds, Guernsey registration numbers are increasing. In both mixed and 100% Guernsey herds, the breed has proven to be competitive in a variety of dairy operations, from small, intensive-grazing dairies to large commercial enterprises.

— Information compiled from the American Guernsey Association

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