By Tom Collins
METCALFE — Ten years ago, John Velthuis would never have considered installing robotic milkers in a new barn.
While milking in an old tie-stall barn, he would dream of milking parlours instead. But things have changed. Robots have improved, and Velthuis wanted a system less dependent on the availability of labour.
Velthuis, 58, runs Riverdown Holsteins at Metcalfe, south of Ottawa, with his wife Karen, 56, son Justin, 21, daughter, Kelly, 26 and Karen’s parents, Ron and Betty Eastman. They started milking with two Lely A4 robots in their new six-row freestall barn on March 14.
“We were in a 73-stall tie-stall barn that was too labour intensive and we’re hoping to be in this business for a long time,” he said. “I didn’t want to spend any money on an old barn that was too labour intensive.”
It used to take two people two hours to milk 73 cows and they did that twice a day in the old tie-stall barn using a pipeline milking system. Now the biggest labour component of the new barn is pushing fresh cows to the robots.
“Robots aren’t labour free,” he said. “There are efficiencies in the labour, but it’s not labour free. We still have to scrape down stalls and bed down cows and feed cows. For the first two months, we spent more time milking cows than we did in the old system.”
After switching to robots, Velthuis was able to let go a full-time employee even though the barn is now milking 35 more cows than last year.
While it took a while to get the cows used to the idea of going to the robots on their own, the production didn’t shift dramatically. There was an initial dip in production from 38 kg to 34 kg for the first two weeks before rebounding back to normal production levels. Now production is at about 39 kg, slightly higher than it was in the tie-stall, and Velthuis expects production numbers to climb as half of the milking cows are two-year-olds and don’t have the high production levels of his older cows.
“But two-year-olds, you never have to fetch,” said the Master Breeder. “They adapt far faster.”
The move to a new robotic barn was made easier by Justin’s decision to stay home to farm full time after graduating from the University of Guelph in 2016.
“I wanted to build a new barn for a long time, but we had to put ourselves in a situation to do it financially,” said John Velthuis. “Then we got to an age that I didn’t want to build a barn if there was not going to be a next generation.”
An elevated office three steps off the ground and five video cameras helps keep an eye on the cows, even when the farmers are in the field, in the house or on vacation on the other side of the world.
Velthuis visited 50 barns across Ontario and Quebec to get an idea of what worked. He says his barn has little bits of a lot of different barns.
“I stole from everybody,” he said. “Am I the first person with something? I’m going to say no. There is no cookie cutter in the dairy industry. You go see these open houses and you say, ‘Oh I like this and I like that.’”
The 134 ft. by 336 ft. barn is now milking about 110 Holsteins. The goal is milk 120 cows and there is room for growth. They can install another two robots in the heifer side of the barn to double the number of milking cows. The heifer side has the same stall layout as the milking herd side of the barn.
Here are three other features of the new barn:
Transferring with ease
Additions were made to the old tie-stall barn in pieces over the years, which created inefficiencies such as four different areas where heifers were kept.
The new barn is better organized with all animals under one roof.
“When you want to move heifers from one group to the next, you just open the gate and the next pen over is your new group,” said Velthuis.
The Velthuis’ decided to go with a new-style ventilation system. Instead of erecting fans that hang down from the ceiling, their nine Ventec cyclone fans are closer to the animals because they are mounted on poles, similar to street lamps, in a line down the middle of the barn to improve air circulation for the cows, Velthuis said.
A chimney at the centre of the barn in the cathedral ceiling allows for the air to escape. Automatic, almost from floor-to-ceiling, curtains on each long side of the barn let in a cool breeze when the barn is too warm.
Cows in the old tie-stall barn lay on either canvas-covered mats with straw or water beds with straw. But Velthuis never wavered about switching to sand bedding in the new barn. He heard a talk from a University of Wisconsin researcher who said sand outperforms mattresses by three kilos per day per cow.
While some have talked about sand getting into machines and making cleaning the manure pit more of a hassle, Velthuis said the pros outweigh the cons. “Are we building a cow barn or a machine shed?” he said. “The sand is first for cows and last for equipment. We’ll deal with the cons.”