Robotic milkers are a big investment for any dairy. There are a lot of options out there, but the best way to see one is to visit a farm that already has a robot running.
Corner View Farm, a 125-head dairy in Kutztown, Pa., is a good place to see the AMS Galaxy robot in action. But what makes this place unique is that it is also home to the company itself.
"It's an exciting, innovative company. We've done some really cool things," says Brad Biehl, president of AMS Galaxy and fourth-generation operator of Corner View Farm.
The company is known for its Astrea 20.20 robotic milker, a machine that uses a single robotic arm to milk two cows at a time in what they call a double box. Corner View Farm was the first farm in the U.S. to install the robot, which was originally developed for farms in Europe.
Today, the company has more than 160 boxes operating on farms, the largest being a five-double box system on a farm in Iowa. A much larger project on a dairy farm in California, which is currently in Phase 1, will eventually include 20 double boxes.
The company’s headquarters are right next to the farm and home where Brad grew up. You have to go down the same lane that milk trucks go down to get to the farm’s headquarters.
The farm itself is a high-tech dairy haven, arguably one of the most technologically advanced dairies in the country. There’s the robot itself, an automated feed pusher, an automated bedding robot that runs on a monorail system and a high-moisture corn feeder — marketed as the HMC Feeder – that any visitor can see in action.
It wasn’t always this technologically advanced. Corner View Farm dates to 1915 when Brad Biehl’s great-grandparents, Ammon and Sally, started it with just 14 stalls. In 1964, LeRoy and Mildred, Brad’s grandparents, doubled the number of stalls.
When Brad’s parents, Dalton and Vickie, took over in 1984, they led another expansion. Then, another expansion happened in 2005.
Brad went to college and eventually got his master’s degree in mechanical engineering. He worked as a machinery engineer for Air Products, but he and his wife, Brooke, wanted to settle back down on the farm.
In 2011, Brad and his father constructed a new freestall barn that allowed a robot to be installed, and the herd increased to 125 cows.
Brad says that he developed a passion for robotic milking and started volunteering to support farms that had Astrea robot installations across the country. He then became a technical support specialist and eventually became the company’s engineer in charge of barn design.
“I don’t know what happened, but life snowballed into a career that I never would have guessed,” Brad says. "I found myself instead of transitioning from my original plan, which was to leave corporate America and become a full-time dairy farmer, I left corporate America and became a dairy manager, and this allowed time for this business to occupy the rest of my hours.”
All the same time, he was buying out small shares of the company. As the company’s founder started pondering retirement, Brad and his wife, Brooke, decided to make the dive and buy out the rest of the company’s shares. In 2017, Brad became president of AMS Galaxy.
Other companies may have more robots and flashier technology, but the on-farm teaching component is where AMS Galaxy stands out, Brad says.
“Sometimes big companies can’t get out of their own way to do, what I think, is the right thing for the dairy producer,” he says. “And I also just really like our innate operating experience here, because we’re actually doing it. It brings the real problems to our attention, and I think it helps us to really stay in touch with not only the technical challenges that come with robots, but also the profitability challenges that come with this technology and the profitability challenges that exist in this business.”
Any producer who buys an AMS robot is invited to take part in a weeklong training session at the Kutztown headquarters. Producers pay for their lodging and travel, but the training itself is free and includes a test at the end of the week.
Brad says the training focuses on preventative maintenance. The center has an Astrea robot that has been stripped down to reveal its inside parts. Producers, and dealers for that matter, are trained on regular maintenance items to look for and how often they should do it
“If you are a farm that likes to push the envelope on running something until it fails, or you are reactive when it comes to preventative maintenance and things like that, I would say that strategy can work in a lot of places on the farm, but preventative maintenance is important when it comes to robots,” Brad says. “Simple preventative maintenance, or lack thereof, can cause a headache.”
It can also save a producer lots of money.
"If you've been looking at robots for any amount of time, you can call somebody up, you're going to have somebody tell you, ‘I spent $30,000 a year to service one box,’" Brad says. “Those are real testimonies that are out there for all brands. And I can tell you there are customers of Galaxy, I don't know if they spend that much, but there are customers of Galaxy that call the dealerships for everything, across the country. And that's just their business philosophy. I'm not telling you that you’re right or wrong, but you better have some sort of plan to make money as a dairy producer. Our philosophy is to give you options.”
"We just believe that this farmer training program makes all the difference," he adds.
More than robots
The farm’s adoption of technology has enabled it to be run by only one full-time employee, along with some part-time help.
In 2013, Brad was in Europe visiting two manufacturers that made bedding robots. At the time, there were no bedding robots in use in the U.S.
His father and another worker did much of the bedding in the freestalls, but to free up his father to do other things on the farm, they decided to install an automatic bedding robot over the freestalls.
The machine runs on a monorail and is programmed to drop fresh bedding onto the freestalls at certain times of the day. It is fed by a hopper that is on the outside of the freestall barn.
Brad says that it takes the labor out of moving equipment into and out of the barn to replace bedding. It is battery operated and quiet. The only maintenance done, he says, is the replacement of the battery and the charging rail where it gets loaded.
The hopper is filled twice a day with chopped soybean stubble, gypsum and sawdust that has been mixed in a wagon.
The latest addition is the HMC Feeder that Brad designed and patented a couple of years ago. He designed the feeder, he says, to displace the $80,000-per-year pellet feed bill to get the cows to come into the robot.
The system includes a hopper that is fed by a skid steer. A series of augers and motors guides the high-moisture corn over the freestalls and into the feed hopper in each robotic miking box. The feeder can be monitored and controlled using a smartphone app.
“It’s 2 years old, and we’ve had our most profitable years with the robots,” Brad says. “We cut our purchased feed costs, and the net savings were $4,500 a month.”
Much of Brad’s time is spent on the road checking installations, traveling to farm shows and doing other things the head of a company does.
“There's a lot to running a business,” he says. “You have people to care for, and things don't always go right. And there's payroll to make and real-life challenges, and people deal with those challenges in business all different ways.”
For him, he doesn’t have to travel very far, only next door.
"The farm gives me an outlet to deal with some of the stresses of running a larger business," he says. “I look forward to sitting on the corn planter for hours, and sometimes I have my headset on and will talk on the phone, and sometimes I need to turn the phone off and just sit there and drive or mix a batch of feed. For me, keeping all the balls in the air is actually a healthy thing.”