-By Rick McNary
The milk cows on Meier’s Dairy are unusual; they decide when to be milked rather than being forced to adapt to a schedule. Since robotic milking machines were installed, some cows now choose to be milked five or six times a day.
“We used to milk three times a day because cows produce more if they are milked every eight hours,” Duane Meier explained. “But we had such a hard time maintaining a labor force that we dropped it to twice a day. Our decision to go with robots was based on the challenges and costs of labor. Since we installed the robots, our labor costs are cut in half and milk production increased 25 percent.”
Duane’s great-grandfather homesteaded near Palmer in the late 1800s, hand-milking cows into a bucket. The dairy transitioned to Duane’s father, and then Duane and his wife, Ronda, purchased it from him. The dairy now milks more than 650 cows each day and four of their five children work on the dairy with them.
“I couldn’t bear the thought of looking out our picture window and not seeing any cows in the pen or that they belonged to someone other than us or our children,” Ronda said. “But I knew if we didn’t move to robotics, we would eventually have to sell out.”
They first saw robots at the World Dairy Expo in Wisconsin. Making the decision to switch to robots was easy; the hard part was finding a company to sell them robots.
“We kept calling two companies, but they couldn’t help us because they didn’t have dealerships near us,” Ronda said. “I finally got on Lely’s Facebook page and messaged them, ‘Please, please, please sell us your machines.’ Someone finally listened and they put the wheels in motion to set up a dealership.”
Robotic milkers, known as automated milking systems (AMS), were developed in Europe and began commercial application in the 1990s.
“Before my Dad passed away he had Alzheimer’s, but I still talked to him about activities on the dairy,” Duane said. “One day, I told him I was nervous about the decision to switch to robots and Dad said to me, ‘Duane, I can see it in your eyes that you’re going to make this work.’ That’s helped me through the dark days when I wasn’t sure we made the right decision.”
When the Meiers first began talking to robotic companies at the Expo, those companies wanted them to build new barns. However, the Meiers had recently built two barns and weren’t interested in building more. Eventually, the company allowed them to retrofit their barns for the equipment.
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