Farm Progress

Demerath dairy’s use of robots in its milking and feeding operations was a big investment, but it changed how Bill Demerath views his role in the operation.

Curt Arens, Editor, Nebraska Farmer

May 1, 2017

4 Min Read
ROBOTS AT WORK: At the new Demerath dairy facility, the robotic milker is attached to the cow's udder in the background and the machine is washing the udder-cleaning brushes in the foreground, preparing the unit for the next cow to come into the stall.

On Feb. 21, everything changed for Bill Demerath. That's the day the family went on line with their new robotic dairy near Plainview, the first of its kind to be operational in Nebraska. With other dairies in the state in the process of initiating robotic milking, dairy folks wonder what it was like for Demerath when the robots began working for him.

"Everything changed for us," Demerath said when Nebraska Farmer toured his new milking and loafing barn facilities recently. "We had researched the idea over the past five years, visiting robotic dairies in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa with other dairy farmers. So we kind of knew what we were getting into."

But that didn't necessarily prepare him for how different things would be. During the process, they not only added robotics to the dairy, but also built a new milking facility and loafing barn to replace their old milking parlor. Now, after several months, Demerath has had time to reflect on the changes.

"In the old parlor, we spent about eight hours a day milking cows," he said. "We were milking cows twice a day, but we didn't have as much time to monitor herd health." That has changed. "Now, we don't milk cows, but we spend more time with the cows. Each cow has an electronic data tag that they wear around their neck. This gives us a tremendous amount of data, so we can tell if her milk temperature is up a bit, which might be an indicator of some health problem, for instance," Demerath explained. "The computer will even calculate milk production for each quarter on her udder, so it can flag a quarter if production is off a bit."

Related:Dairy owner describes first week with robots at helm

Breaking with tradition
The system that was installed in the new structure does not include a traditional milking parlor. Demerath's four Lely Astronaut robotic milking stalls are actually located in the loafing shed. Cows are attracted into the stalls on their own by a personalized ration of protein pellets that each cow enjoys while being milked. Once she is in the stall, the robot employs a series of brushes that gently wash the udder. Then it uses lasers to identify teat placement and attach to the udder.

Lely technicians from Gorter's Clay and Dairy Equipment at Pipestone, Minn., and Nebraska Dairy Systems in Norfolk helped Demerath with the design of his system, installation, calibration and technical service throughout the startup process and now through the daily workload.

"On average, it takes about 7 minutes to milk each cow," Demerath said. "Cows will try to go back into the stall to get pellets, but the robot knows if a cow has just been milked, so it will kick her out of the stall and allow another cow in." There are also cows that don't come up to the stall on their own that he has to retrieve and bring up for milking, but Demerath said that the number of those cows continues to decrease as the herd gets used to the new system.

The whole process is quiet and calm. Demerath noted that the combination of less human contact, more uniform facilities and attention to the details of herd health, feed rations and production have already increased production by about 7 pounds per cow. Milking frequency has gone up from the previous twice a day done by humans to three times a day on average. However, there are high-production cows in the herd that will be milked five times a day, because they have that potential.

"People think of this as a big investment, but for us, we were installing equipment that is being utilized 24 hours a day, seven days a week and 365 days a year," Demerath said. "We are currently milking 160 head, so there can be a downtime when the robots are not milking, usually between 2 p.m. and 3 p.m. in the afternoon and 2 a.m. and 3 a.m. at night. If we were at milking capacity, they would be milking constantly."

Because the cows receive protein pellets when they are being milked, Demerath feeds dry feed in his concrete alleyway stalls on a partial-mixed ration basis. The family purchased a Lely Juno robot that uses ultrasound guidance to spin up and down the alleyway feeding area in the loafing shed, pushing feed closer to the cows on each pass. The robot is set to push feed up once every hour, and then returns to a charging station. It makes a low "beep" sound when operating. "The cows hear that sound and move up to the alleyway, because they know what it means," Demerath said. "Cows always have fresh feed available, and there is less wasted feed with this unit."

Demerath said that visitors to the new dairy often comment that the family is babying their cows. "That's what we want to do," he said. "By taking such good care of them, they produce better and stay healthy."



About the Author(s)

Curt Arens

Editor, Nebraska Farmer

Curt Arens began writing about Nebraska’s farm families when he was in high school. Before joining Farm Progress as a field editor in April 2010, he had worked as a freelance farm writer for 27 years, first for newspapers and then for farm magazines, including Nebraska Farmer.

His real full-time career, however, during that same period was farming his family’s fourth generation land in northeast Nebraska. He also operated his Christmas tree farm and grew black oil sunflowers for wild birdseed. Curt continues to raise corn, soybeans and alfalfa and runs a cow-calf herd.

Curt and his wife Donna have four children, Lauren, Taylor, Zachary and Benjamin. They are active in their church and St. Rose School in Crofton, where Donna teaches and their children attend classes.

Previously, the 1986 University of Nebraska animal science graduate wrote a weekly rural life column, developed a farm radio program and wrote books about farm direct marketing and farmers markets. He received media honors from the Nebraska Forest Service, Center for Rural Affairs and Northeast Nebraska Experimental Farm Association.

He wrote about the spiritual side of farming in his 2008 book, “Down to Earth: Celebrating a Blessed Life on the Land,” garnering a Catholic Press Association award.

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