Robotic milkers keep these dairy farmers competitive

It’s 5 a.m. at the Simmons home near Little Rapids, Newfoundland — and everyone is still asleep. That’s unheard of for most dairy producers. But, with the help of two robotic milkers to replace a twice-daily conventional milking schedule, the Simmons now have more flexibility in their lives — including room for a little more shut eye.

“People ask me what I do now with all of my free time,” says David Simmons, co-owner along with his wife, Sara, of Pure Holsteins. “But the work is still there — we still have to feed the animals and look after the dairy. We manage animals individually instead of as a herd to make sure we get the most from each cow,” he explains. “It’s not that we have more free time; it’s that our time is more flexible.”

The robotic milking system, installed in November 2014, was the first of its kind in the province of Newfoundland and Labrador, and its implementation is one of the reasons the Simmons were chosen as Atlantic Region winners of the 2015 Outstanding Young Farmers’ Program. The annual competition seeks out young farmers who represent innovation and excellence in their profession.

David and Sara Simmons have taken a lifetime of experience growing up on farms, and applied it to their own dairy operation. Sara was raised on a dairy farm in Moncton, NB, while David grew up on a Newfoundland poultry farm — originally owned by his grandfather then, later, by his father and uncle. Another uncle came on board to run the dairy side of the family business.

David and Sara met at the Nova Scotia Agricultural College where they developed a plan for owning their own dairy, while at the same time helping transition David’s family farm over to the next generation. “I came back to Newfoundland in 2007 and worked with my uncle to learn all I could about dairy management before Sara joined me,” says David. “When she arrived a year later she took on the breeding and calving part of the business.”

When David’s uncle stepped back in 2010, he and Sara became managers of the dairy and within two years they took over full management of the 100-head herd. “After starting Pure Holsteins in 2011, we bought the cows and the equipment and leased the dairy facilities and the quota from my father and his two brothers.”

This succession plan has allowed everyone in their family to participate in the farm regardless of what point they are at in life. David’s dad recently retired while his two uncles continue to grow forage. And, as their farm careers wind down, they work with David and Sara to ensure a smooth transition.

“They helped prepare us for success, and we continue to work with them daily,” says Sara. “We have made a lot of upgrades in the last few years to make the business more profitable,” she adds. “We put in fans throughout the dairy and laid down rubber throughout the barns. We have also been very focused on the genetics of our herd because high quality, registered Holsteins are generally healthier and produce more milk.”

Since they started Pure Holsteins, herd productivity has increased from an average of 27 litres per cow per day in 2010, to 38 litres in 2014. Sara estimates that the robotic system has increased each cow’s production by a further 25 per cent and, once fully optimized, has the potential to increase that by another 5 per cent.

The robotic units are placed perpendicular to each other in the barn. When a cow is ready to be milked, she enters a stall outside the milker. At this point the robot identifies the cow by scanning a neck collar. If she’s not ready to be milked, she has to leave the milker. If a cow is ready, a set of brushes cleans her teats and air dries them. Then, using a 3-D camera and lasers, the robot attaches to the udder and begins milking.

“Grain is like candy to cows and the robots automatically feed them,” says Sara. “We have no trouble getting them to come and be milked. And they quickly learn to enter the milker when they are ready,” she adds. “This happens at different times throughout the day, so we don’t have cows all trying to get in there at once. Each cow is milked in about five minutes and depending on what stage she’s at, is milked anywhere from one to eight times a day.”

The robotic system also allows the Simmons to keep better track of a cow’s performance, as it records her weight, milk temperature, ketone levels, and somatic cell counts. This additional information helps David and Sara better track the health of their herd.

The next steps in their business plan include preparations to take more of a management role in the forage side of the farm. Right now, they have 550 acres in production — mostly alfalfa and legume/grass, with 80 acres in corn silage plus a few additional acres under a wheat, oats and peas rotation. This mix has allowed them to be entirely self-sufficient in feed, which is unusual for dairy farms in Newfoundland.

“We face a big change when my uncles retire,” says David. “Right now we count on the forage being available, the manure spread and the snow cleared,” he explains. “That will eventually all fall to us and we think the improvements we have made and will continue to make should allow us to manage it all with minimal help.”

The Simmons are active in their community, and show their cows wherever they have the opportunity. They also volunteer on the Deer Lake Agricultural Fall Fair committee, and David is president of the NS/NL Holstein Branch. He also chairs a Young Farmers Forum steering committee. They hope their love of farming will continue to the next generation.

“Our daughter, Felicity, is still only four, but she is part of the dairy operation each and every day, which is easier now that we don’t have the same rigid schedule,” says Sara. “We hope she will have the same interest in farming as we have and we hope to set up the farm so that it will work for the next generation, as our set-up has worked for us,” she says. “We would like to start a 4-H club in our community as we want to encourage kids to be interested in farming from an early age.”

David says their land can support up to 200 milking cows and replacements. With that in mind, the Simmons would like to eventually add a couple more robotic milkers, a new barn for replacement and dry cows, and then slowly increase the number of cows in their milking herd. But right now, David and Sara are slowing their pace a little to allow them to reap the rewards of all their improvements, and enjoy the flexibility the new systems provide.