LOYAL — Two Lely Astronaut milking robots were installed 5½ years ago by Malm’s Rolling Acres for its herd of about 120 cows. Farm owner Mitch Malm found the robots worked well for the farm and recently decided to add another robot — a Lely Vector mixer and feeder, the first in Wisconsin.
Malm said they put the Vector in shortly before Christmas last year, and it has worked well for them so far.
“We had a few problems when we first started when we ground the feed too fine and it would hold up in the bins. (The robot) also works better in warmer weather. Otherwise, it keeps feeding cows,” Malm said.
The Vector feed system works 24 hours a day, measuring and mixing rations for the different groups of cows on the farm.
“It feeds the two main groups in the barn, which are the milk cows, dry cows and the steam-up cows. Then it crosses over on the path and it will feed the three groups of heifers,” said Jackie Breuch from Seehafer Refrigeration, the company that installed and maintains the Lely robots. “It feeds them roughly 12 times a day. All included, it takes about 45 minutes to an hour to mix a batch and go out and deliver it.”
The robot is set to know how much feed to put out, along with how often and which cows it is feeding at a given point. It will scan the bunk to see how much feed remains from the last feeding, while also pushing up what feed is remaining. It is programmed to keep the milking cows’ feed about 4 inches high.
The Vector mixes each batch in a feed kitchen that consists of the robot’s feed grabber, a bunker full of forages for the rations and the minerals and grains that are added into each ration.
“There are 20 spaces in the bunker that you can put 20 different feeds in here or you can put multiples of one kind,” Breuch said. “(The grabber) will pick from the high point of the feed and take it to the mixer. We can set parameters on how much the grabber can control so if it has more than it is supposed to, it will release it and try again.”
She said once the grabber has a good grab of feed, it can either accept it and take it over to the mixer or it can refuse it and try again. The Malms’ robot is set to give the grabber two refusals for each grab, after which point it takes what it has and puts it in the mixer, recording if it is over or under what the ration requires.
“The beauty of it is that every feeding is getting done the exact same way, every route, every day,” Breuch said. “We are able to track every ingredient that went into the mix and track if there is anything that is being over- or under-fed. What we find is that everything is pretty accurate from day to day.”
Malm said depending on the forage, they refill the bunker every two to three days. If at any point an ingredient runs out, the system will shut down and notify Malm that something needs to be refilled. Breuch said they supply a tablet with the system that can track what ration is being mixed, when it will be delivered and also notify the farmer if there are any problems.
“We are able to tell on an average how often each ingredient is being used. That way, we know how much we need to put in for the next day to make sure that we are not running out or that we don’t have too much that is going to be spoiling,” she said.
Ingredients are mixed as they are being added to the Vector to ensure an equal mix throughout the ration. Once the last ingredient is added, a programmed lag time requires the robot to sit and mix for a short period to ensure that everything is mixed thoroughly. It then will start on its strip, through the automatic garage doors and into the main barn. It will measure, push up feed and feed out its ration as it goes, completely emptying by the time it reaches the garage door again.
“Once it knows it is getting closer to the end, it will start putting more feed out. That way, when it gets to the end, it will be completely empty. There is not going to be a big pile at the end,” Breuch said. “It will empty out because if there was something in that ration that couldn’t go to another ration, we obviously don’t want that in there.”
After feeding in the milk cow barn, the Vector will return to its station to charge its battery and mix the next ration for the heifers. It then travels outside along a path with a strip to the heifer barn, where it will feed each group of heifers.
Max Malm, Mitch’s son, said the biggest challenge with the Vector traveling outside and into the other barn is the ice that can build up right inside the door during the winter.
“It would get icy right by the door and when it would turn, the Vector would spin out. If it spins, it gets off a little bit,” Malm said. “It will try and correct itself, but sometimes it doesn’t work.”
To combat this, the Vector is programmed to not feed the heifers from 9:30 p.m. to 6:30 a.m. so if there was snow or ice overnight, the Malms can get it cleared away before it makes its trek in the morning. Breuch said the Vector can go through a few inches of snow but is just like a car if it gets on ice. If it spins too much, it can get lost and send out an alert to the farmer to help it get back on track.
The Malms said overall, they are pleased with the system and believe it works well with their milking robots.
“It just seems like the cows do so much better. We don’t have to mess with them, and they like being able to do their own thing, without human intervention. There are also less fetch cows,” Max said. “They hear the Vector and get up and come eat. Then they decide to go get milked.”
“The girls love it,” Breuch said. “If you watch when they are feeding, they will be chasing it as it dumps new feed. They know it is coming for them and they know it is good for them”
The system is estimated to have a three- to four-year payback and an estimated life of 20 to 25 years. Breuch said Seehafer Refrigeration services the robots every three to four months and replaces parts as needed, but overall, the maintenance is relatively low on the units. She said the robots are just like any other equipment: If you take care of them, they will last.
The second Vector in Wisconsin will be installed and operating at Northcentral Technical College later this year.