When a fire destroyed the bank barn at Oakleigh Farm in December 2019, the Brake family had a big decision to make.
The dairy market was just starting to see some life at the end of 2019 after several years of being in the dumps. But with only 125 cows, the operation wasn’t big enough to support multiple families for the long term. And their facilities, with 1950s technology, were old.
But the family wasn’t ready to give up on dairying.
“Karen and I wanted to see cows come back,” says Glenn Brake, owner of the Mercerburg, Pa., farm. “Our children wanted to see cows come back, and my dad wanted to see cows come back.”
Thus started the process of transforming the farm — with its outdated milking and housing facilities — into a state-of-the-art dairy operation complete with automated curtains and fans, and cow collars that keep track of each cow’s activity and movement.
And robots, from the feed pusher to manure scrapers and two robotic milkers, are a big part of the transformation.
Planning the future
The decision to continue dairying wasn’t just about putting up a new barn and calling it a day. There were certain things that needed improving.
The only piece left from the fire was the old milking parlor. Brake says the original plan was to build a barn and continue using the old parlor. The old barn was a bedded pack configuration with a feed lane in the center, and Brake wanted to keep the same setup.
“We really didn't want to expand," he says. “We had 125 in the herd before, so the rebuild saved a lot in permitting because we essentially built on the same footprint.”
One thing Brake never had was the ability to do a total mixed ration, or TMR. And with only family members working on the farm, a robotic feed mixer and pusher sounded attractive.
“As we started pushing the pencil, this robotic feeder was our first step into robots thinking that we can afford this, we can do this. It made dollars and cents,” he says.
The family purchased a Lely Vector that collects feed from the existing silo conveyor system, mixes it and then moves a short distance to the feed alley. The Vector, which the family has named Gordon after the TV chef, pushes the feed and, using a laser, scans each pile’s height.
Matt Brake, Glenn’s son, has presets for each feed height for the heifers, pre-fresh heifers and lactating cows. He can keep track of his presets and do adjustments on the fly using his smartphone.
Gordon scans each pile and will add feed to the preset height.
The two upright silos feed a central location via conveyor. The machine pulls from the central location to make the TMR. Matt says the machine is flexible in that it can be adjusted to work with a bunk silo or other feed system if they decide to go that route.
But the improvements didn’t stop there. They liked Gordon so much that they decided to purchase two robotic manure collectors. The collectors go through the alley, spraying down the walkways to keep the manure moist. Using vacuum pumps, they collect the manure and empty it into the barn’s underground manure pit. The sprays also keep the walkways fairly clean.
But the biggest decision came late last year when the Brakes decided to install two Lely robotic milkers.
“Just the consistency of it is great,” Glenn says of the robotic milkers. “Instead of milking two times a day, we’re averaging 2.8 times a day. Some of these cows are getting milked four times a day or more, some are a little less than two, but it’s an individual thing.”
Training the cows, as many farmers with robots can attest to, wasn’t easy. For three straight days, the cows were brought into the robots around the clock to get them adjusted.
“Then the next three days the cows got a little bit of a break,” Matt explains. “The cows were going in quicker. After that first week though, they were trending really good. Within two weeks, they were just cruising.”
Glenn says he was surprised that none of the cows refused the robots, although some were more difficult than others to train. There were very few issues with udder quality, and the robots were able to find the teats easily. In fact, the oldest cow in the herd is the second-most visiting cow to the robot, he says, proving that you can teach an old cow new tricks.
So, why all the upgrades with robots? With most of Glenn’s children having off-farm jobs, this was the best way to ensure feeding and milking was getting done and is consistent. Most important, though, it made financial sense.
Compromises and adjustments
Construction of the new barn began last spring, and the barn opened last July.
None of the cows were lost in the 2019 fire, so they were housed in a neighbor’s freestall barn until the new barn was ready. Last year was “rough” for the cows, Glenn says, since they were used to the bedded pack setup. Once construction was finished and they were brought back, Glenn says that he noticed an almost immediate improvement in their condition.
The boost in milk production has been modest at best, he says. Butterfat is 3.8%, and protein is 3.1%, but the overall rolling herd average is hard to calculate, Matt says, because of all the changes made.
Losing the original bank barn, though, has led to big changes in the feed ration. The bank barn is where they stored all the dry hay, and that storage is now lost. Glenn says that he’s making the gradual switch to cutting and ensiling wheat (wheatlage) for forage.
The bedded pack setup is different, too. The bank barn gave the cows access to pasture. The new barn, though, is completely confined and, as a result, requires more maintenance.
Weekly sawdust applications are a must, and Matt roto-tills the pack at least twice a day to keep it fresh and clean.
The bedded pack lasts about five or six months before having to be switched out, but this past winter was a challenge, Glenn says, as the bedded pack was wetter and it couldn’t get dried. After a few months, it was switched out.
One good compromise was the barn’s width. Glenn originally wanted the barn to be wider than 80 feet, but the narrower setup is better for airflow and requires less fans, especially over the feed alley. Several automatic high-volume, low-speed fans keep air flowing over the cows.
Automatic curtains open and close depending on wind direction and outside temperature.
Better management, brighter future
The Brakes can keep track of everything, from milking to feeding, through Lely’s software system. This has several advantages.
Each cow has a collar attached that will track production, feeding and cow health.
Glenn says that it made sense to add the collars because the robots were already recording everything else, so why not record the cows’ activity in the bedded pack?
It’s made heat detection a lot easier, he says. In the old barn, heat detection was done by visual inspection. Now, the collars keep track of when a cow is eating and chewing, two factors crucial to knowing if a cow is coming into heat.
“It is amazing,” Glenn says. “No more Ovsynchs, just breeding off of natural heat cycles.”
“And the best part,” Matt says, “is once she’s in the robot and she’s in heat, it kicks her into special needs so we don’t need to come around here to chase her or catch her. She’s there ready to be bred.”
For Glenn, there is no more standing in the parlor for eight hours a day milking. In fact, when he isn’t getting other chores done, he pulls up a chair and watches the cows in the barn. In fact, he has two chairs set up in the feed alley where he often does just that.
Of course, the system has plenty of alarms that keep them busy and in the barn.
There also are 400 acres of ground to work.
Matt is one of Glenn’s five children. He’s also a part-time flight instructor. Another son and a daughter also help on the farm, but keep full-time jobs. Another daughter is a full-time church minister, and Glenn’s oldest daughter is a physical therapist living in North Carolina.
While he misses the old barn, Matt also appreciates the clean slate he’s been given. He’s always wanted to see the farm continue in his family and now sees the chance to further expand into other ventures, like possibly on-farm processing in the future.
For now, though, the new setup allows he and his father to focus more of their time on what pays the bills: producing milk.
“No more labor, now it’s about focusing on the cows and getting them to produce as much as possible and focus on forage qualities," he says. "Just looking at those and making the best crops.”