A lot has changed in the 70 years Janski Farms has been operational. Everything but one building has been expanded, converted, newly constructed or upgraded to keep up with the times. And that includes the milking process.
Rich and Marlys Janski, third-generation farmers, were able to create a sustainable milking operation of 220 cows with the assistance of hired help. But when their long-term employees decided to retire in 2013, Rich Janski said he having a difficult time recruiting milkers.
"My vote was to quit dairying," he said.
Janski said dairying for him came second, following his 4,000 acres of crop farming. Without hired help, it would be virtually impossible for him or his family to keep up the operation, the St. Cloud Times reported.
But giving up the cows did not sit well with his sons Thomas, now 24, and Daniel, now 22.
For Daniel especially, working with cows had always been a passion.
"Thomas loves crops. I love cows," Daniel Janski said.
Thomas and Daniel had been exploring the future of the farming industry for years as they prepared to become the fourth generation of Janski farmers. And that future included robotics.
"The technology is always evolving into something new," Daniel Janski said.
After much discussion, the Janskis decided in August 2013 to invest $1.5 million to convert their barn into a parlor capable of housing four Lely Astronaut A4 robotic milkers. Rich Janski said the family also invested $10,000 in technology prior to debuting their new milking process on Jan. 6, 2014.
The family has not looked back.
At traditional dairy operations, farmers milk their cows twice a day — once in the morning and once in the evening. But with a robotic system, cows can be milked at all hours of the day, regardless of whether the farmer is present.
When it is time for a cow to be milked, she enters a chute-type device and steps on a scale. Her collar is scanned and data is relayed to a computer system.
"The collar does three things," Don Brower, equipment sales manager for Melrose-based livestock specialty company Leedstone said.
Leedstone is a distributor for Lely products.
"One, it identifies the cow to the robot. Two, it's keeping track of how active the cow is during the day. And three, it's monitoring her rumination minutes," Brower said. Those rumination minutes show how often she is chewing her cud, an indication of how often she is eating.
As the gate closes behind her, a bucket with a pre-measured amount of sweet pellet treats pops out in front of her so she can eat while being milked.
"It's the sweet pellets that brings the cows to the robots," Rich Janski said.
While the cow is eating, a robotic arm with a mini scrub brush gently cleans each teat. Lasers read where the teats are located on the cow so the robotic arm can properly hook up the teat cups and begin the milking process. While the cow is being milked, data is constantly being transmitted back to a computer system telling the farmer how much milk each teat is producing, the temperature of the teats, the weight of the cow, the time between her last milking and whether there are signs of illnesses such as mastitis.
After the cow has been milked, the bucket of feed is removed and the cow can walk back out into the barn.
Each robot can milk about 60 cows every 24 hours.
With the robotic monitoring, cows that try and sneak back in to be milked early will be rejected. Cows that refuse to move out of the system when they are done receive a small electrical shock to prod them on their way.
"It really is a cow-friendly environment," Brower said.
For the Janskis, robotic dairying is a fairly new investment. But Brower said Leedstone has been selling Lely robotic systems for the past eight-and-a-half years.
"I think it's going to be a big part of the future," he said. "There has been more and more interest in it."
Leedstone, which services the northern two-thirds of Minnesota and portions of North Dakota, has helped 42 farmers incorporate robotics into their dairy operation. Brower estimates about 110 Lely robots have been installed in Leedstone's service area.
Brower said each Lely Astronaut A4 can cost between $190,000 and $210,000 per robot.
Not surprisingly, Brower said more young farmers have expressed interest in the technology.
"They don't want to be tied down to the schedules (of morning and afternoon milking)," Brower said. "But the younger generation doesn't have the equity to invest."
So more often than not, robotics are incorporated into established dairies where farmers are not ready to give up the cows, but physically can no longer handle the stress on their bodies.
In addition, Brower said Leedstone's robotic dairying customers tend to be smaller dairy operations.
"The larger farms are somewhat hesitant to make that large of an investment up front," Brower said.
However, as the Janskis have noticed, the large upfront cost to incorporate robots into their dairy has been paying off.
"The way I look at it is that in three years we have gone up in production and can track things a lot better," Daniel Janski said.
After a rough 2014 getting both farmers and cows acquainted with the technology, Rich Janski reported seeing a "phenomenal" 2015.
"We got to where we wanted to with milk pounds per day," he said.
That goal was 15 milk pounds — or 2 gallons — more per cow per day.
And that's where many farmers who have switched to robotics are seeing a return on investment.
"Generally farmers can anticipate 5 to 6 extra milk pounds per day," Brower said. "It depends on the situation. But that (amount can correlate to) tens of thousands of dollars more farmers are making each year."
If a farmer's herd produces an average of 5 milk pounds more per day, Brower said, it would take about seven to 10 years to see a return on investment.
In the two years since the initial conversion, Janski Farms has gone all out with automation. In addition to the A4 milkers, the Janskis have invested in automatic calf feeders and an automated feeder for their cows.
"We're at the size where robots work for us," Marlys Janski said.
As the 70-year old farm transitions to the next generation, Daniel and his brother Thomas are committed to keeping up with the changing face of agricultural technology.
"It's exciting to see," he said.
An AP Exchange feature by Vicki Ikeoguv, St. Cloud Times.