October 19, 2018

Control Your Robot

 |  By: Mike Opperman

The Qual family made the move into the robot age following a path taken by many producers who fancy the new technology. They needed a solution to finding and keeping good employees.

Qual dairy is in Lisbon, N.D.; there’s a Bobcat factory just nine miles away. The competition for employees who would rather work in a factory, for higher pay, is real.

There are 13 employees on the dairy today and certainly enough Qual family labor to go around. There are two sides to the Qual family business. The crop side, consisting of around 7,000 acres of corn, wheat, soybeans and alfalfa, is run by Rod and his sons, Tyler and Nathan. The cow side, which consists of about 1,400 milking cows, consists of Alan, who is now the financial manager of the business, and sons Jon and Mark. All six partners contribute to the management and operations of both businesses.

But while labor issues might have led them to robots, maintaining control over the milking process is what led them to a 60-stall robotic rotary.

In 2017, the family decided the double-12 herringbone parlor built in 1986 had maxed out it’s lifespan in terms of cow throughput, Mark says, which meant it was time to look at other options. A robot rotary parlor helps Qual Dairy control the milking process.

“We came to a point where we needed to decide where the dairy was heading and what the next step was going to be, if we were just going to maintain where we were at or increase cow numbers,” Jon says. “That discussion led us into a few different options of what we wanted to do.”

Mark says, for the most part, their robotic rotary functions just like a conventional rotary. “We bring cows to the holding area exactly like a normal
milk parlor,” Mark says, “except on the rotary, they get milked by robots instead of people.”

Hidden within that description is the freedom Mark talks about afforded by the robotic rotary parlor. “Box units, whether you have one or multiple units in a pen, pretty much always have to be on and working,” Mark says, because in a free flow system cows can come and go as they please through the milking unit. “So your milking time is essentially 24 hours per day.”

With the robotic rotary, which is made by GEA, Mark says they are in control of when the robots are running. And if one of the robots malfunctions, they put an empty 55-gal. barrel in the entrance to that specific robot so no cows can enter the stall and the rotary keeps moving.

“So our 60-stall rotary turns into a 59-stall rotary, and we lose only 8 seconds in a turn,” Mark says. “That means we can control when we fix it. We don’t have to drop everything and go fix it.”

Mark doesn’t get 1 a.m. service calls either, which he appreciates. “The other morning there was a barrel in one of the stalls from a robot that was malfunctioning the night before,” he says. “So instead of one of us getting the call at 1 a.m. to come fix the robot, we fixed it on our own time.”

The flexibility allows Mark and Jon to milk cows on a modified 3x system. The cow herd is split into eight groups based on stage of lactation from fresh to late-lactation cows. The first milking of the day is at 5:45 a.m., and all groups are milked. There’s a break to rinse the parlor before groups one through five, the fresh and early-lactation groups, are milked again at 12:15 p.m. Then at 7:45 p.m., they start milking with pens six through
eight before bringing up pens one through five for their third milking. While they have been milking in the new parlor since April 5, this grouping system has been in place for about a month, and they are starting to see production improve. 

Even with the addition of the robots, labor on the dairy hasn’t changed, at least not yet. Qual Dairy had 14 employees before the robots went in. Labor in the old parlor meant two people for each shift, twice each day, plus one person to push the cows up and clean stalls. Now, there is one person in the parlor for each shift and another person brings up cows and manages bedding in the freestalls. According to Mark, it’s all part of having control
over the process, rather than being controlled by it.

After meeting with employees before the transition and explaining how jobs would change, one employee left. “We changed some job descriptions and responsibilities for our employees,” Jon says. “And we decided that if an employee does leave, we will think long and hard about if we want to
replace that position.”

One thing that the Qual family can’t control is milk price and building this project in the current dairy economy took planning. “We’re seeing more farmers considering robotics as a technology and part of a long-term business success plan,” says Tim Baumgartner, team leader of dairy
lending at Compeer Financial. “Evaluating a new technology or system takes a comprehensive approach and, to be successful, needs to have a well thought-out plan.”

Mark and his family constructed the plan on their own, with help on details from GEA and input from heir nutritionist, builder and lender. Including an advisory team in the process is critical, Baumgartner adds. “The need for a well-rounded advisory team is due to a wide range of parameters when looking at an automated milking system,” Baumgartner says. “An advisory team allows you the best opportunity to develop a road map for
a successful business plan.”

Included in the financing was the construction of a new building to house the parlor, plus a new cross-vent barn. Local banks were used for
financing, including long- and short-term financing and leasing. Mark says it helped to have existing relationships with their lenders, and that they were familiar with robot technology.

“We brought a lot of information knowing that we were going to need to educate them on the process for how the new system was going to benefit our productivity and efficiencies, above how we were going to pay for it all,” Mark says. “It wasn’t pulling teeth but we had a few different meetings with quite a few different people and it all came together in the end.” 

According to Baumgartner, plans need to be realistic, especially in this market climate. “Expectations of productivity, efficiency and costs need
to be well researched and realistic,” he says. “By taking the time for due diligence in planning your new set up, it will enhance the potential of success for the significant investment you are making.”

The long-term plan of slow expansion was part of the plan to help cash flow the project, Jon says. “With current milk prices we had to add a few more cows sooner.” 

Even with the worst case scenarios, Mark says their gloom and doom projections are pretty close to reality. “It’s easy to make things cash flow when everything is perfect,” Mark says. “So we looked at some realistic and not-great scenarios, and it still came out looking doable.”

To see a robot rotary in action, click here