By Connor Lynch
HILLIER — For 33-year old dairy farmer Lee Nurse, who milks 70 Holsteins with two robotic milkers, working on the computer in the dairy barn sometimes feels like a video game. “It’s actually quite fun if you’re into watching all the information.”
Sitting at the computer, Nurse can pull out or make extensive charts filled with data and measurements stuffed with cow names, numbers and graphs.
Nurse added two Lely robotic milkers to his Prince Edward County farm in January. “It was immediately a lot less work.”
Lee loves the robots and what they bring to the farm, including a four-litre per day per cow increase in the bulk tank that has gobbled up the extra quota they’ve been buying with hopes of expanding their herd. The other big change is the information bonanza that changes how he works day to day. “Now it’s about management instead of putting in the time and labour,” he said.
On an average day Nurse isn’t spending more than a half hour on the computer. When winter rolls around he’s spent as much as six hours playing around with data. On a busy day he might only check production, weight, or somatic cell count. But when he has time to sit down, he can create a graph comparing rumination time to milking minutes over time in lactation to figuring out how different ration components affect milk composition. “There’s tons of stuff (I can do). I don’t even know where to start.”
Nurse’s robots do somatic cell counts on every cow, every time they get milked, and compare that to their average. That lets him spot mastitis in his herd while it’s still sub-clinical. “It’s live information. I know exactly who, when, what quarter, and any other health issues.”
In particular, said Nurse, the feed tracking system lets him know when a cow’s off her feed, something he said is critical for helping head off problems. “Even a cow guy might not pick up a cow that’s off her feed for one day” in a free-stall, free-feeding barn such as Nurse’s.
Nurse’s 70-year old father is an old-school cow guy. He uses a flip phone when he even has one on him. “He, however, can tell a good cow from 50 feet away. I need two animals beside each other to tell. The technology isn’t his thing. Animal husbandry is.”
For 31-year old Doug MacGregor, the transition to two robots last November wasn’t so easy. MacGregor was spending two hours a day on the computer last winter, just getting the hang of it. “There’s so much information you have to be careful not to get lost in it,” he said.
He’s down to one hour a day. MacGregor, who started with no computer skills, said that now he has no problems getting the information he needs. He checks body weights daily and regularly compares body weights to individual production and checks body temperatures to see what cow might be in heat.
He can now apply years of working with cows to a little screen time. His computer can tell him if a cow has a spike in conductivity, but it takes someone who knows a thing or two about cows to say that she probably has mastitis.
One of the biggest misconceptions of robotic milkers is that they’ll cause a generation of dairy farmers to lose their cow skills, said MacGregor. “People think you don’t have to go into the barn or anything. The computer can tell you all sorts of things but you still have to go out and see what’s going on.”
For 32-year old Athens area dairy farm Cole Verburg, the challenge is not the computer. “I could spend all day on it,” he said, adding that sometimes his brother Ian has to remind him to get back to work.
But even for a young farmer with an eye for the soft glow of a computer screen, old habits die hard. On an average day, Verburg only spends about a half hour on the computer. “It’s hard to replace the hands-on stuff with a computer,” he said. “You want to get out there.”