Feeding system saves more than two work hours a day
NORTH AUGUSTA — The Oosterhof family’s robotic journey has recently taken another quantum leap. Not only do robots milk the cows at JoBo Farms, they feed them now, too. The additional labour savings will help ease the farm’s succession plan as the youngest partner in the operation gradually takes over with less help needed in the barn.
Eleven years ago, the family upgraded from a 1970s-era tie-stall barn and erected a spacious free-stall facility featuring two Lely milking robots. But they weren’t done just yet with the original farmstead where their three upright concrete silos still had plenty of life left in them to store their corn silage and haylage. The feed was drawn back to the new barn, a few hundred meters away, in a pull-behind TMR mixer, twice a day, a process of unloading and transport that occupied one person for about three hours.
The trusty 70-foot silos were only fully retired in July, when the remainder of last year’s haylage harvest was finally used up. In their place are five newly installed bunk silos, made of precast concrete slabs, close to the modern barn. Gone is the pull-behind feed mixer. In its place is a tractor-mounted block cutter and an indoor Lely “kitchen” where blocks of cut-out haylage and corn silage are robotically processed and then trundled out to the cattle at all hours of the day in a Lely Vector robot, which looks like a giant red blender on wheels.
While the tractor-mounted block cutter systems are common in Holland, this is the first one in Eastern Ontario used in combination with the Lely ‘kitchen’ feeding system. The new Oosterhof system is also only the third Lely kitchen set-up in Eastern Ontario, according to Levi DeJong, sales associate with the vendor, Dundas Agri Systems. JoBo Farms will showcase their new system at an open house on Aug. 22.
Up to three days’ worth of blocks can be left in the ‘kitchen’ by the tractor operator, usually Steve Oosterhof, 35, junior partner in the farm with his father and mother — Henry and Evelina — and his uncle and aunt, Alex and Julie, along with Steve’s wife, Lindsay. The robotic feeding systems handle it from there. An overhead crane-mounted unit with bucket jaws slowly descends and takes carefully measured bites of each feed type and drops them into a waiting Lely Vector feed robot, which mixes up the precise recipe as it recharges with electricity. Pellets and grain corn, stored in bins beside the barn, go into the mix through separate conveyors, and water is automatically added as required. The Vector rolls out and dispenses the mixture to the cattle on the manager arranged in a u-shape around the perimeter of the barn. It measures the height of uneaten feed and drops only where extra is required. It also pushes up the feed. Feed is dispensed a couple of times a day but more often at night, when the cows eat more, which should help improve milk production.
“The machine feeds according to need,” Henry says, explaining a key benefit of the system during a recent tour of the barn for a visitor.
Another major benefit is time and labour savings. All three Oosterhof men used to spend two and a half hours in the barn every morning, between 5:30 and 8 a.m. Now only two of them are required because the old job of unloading and fetching feed at the tower silos is gone. That leaves the usual in-barn tasks of breeding and calving, feeding calves, cleaning and general maintenance. Getting feed out of the bunkers and leaving it as blocks in the kitchen, for the robots to deal with, only takes about half an hour.
“As we transition with me taking over the farm …I can fill the feed kitchen anytime in the day, instead of having my father or uncle spend 2 or 3 hours a day making the feed,” Steve says, for a net daily time savings of about 2 ½ hours.
Henry, 65, and Alex, 64, will split the time off. “We’ll be able to plan ahead when we don’t work in the mornings, do what we want and not be a farmer for that time, go to town or whatever,” Henry says.
“The robot has given us more flexibility in the evenings,” he adds. “We can be done at 5:30 instead of 7:30 p.m., and that’s really a wonderful thing for family.” They’ve also discovered the benefits of stocking the feed kitchen before the main part of the weekend. “We’ve already noticed that Saturday evenings and Sunday evenings are easier, and it’s possible two of us can be gone, with one guy doing the chores.”
They say the system, including the barn addition to accommodate the kitchen, the block cutter, bunk silos, and the two feed-handling robots cost them about $800,000.
The family takes a gradual approach to upgrades, paying off major loans before embarking on new capital projects, and using equipment to the end of its useful life before replacement.
Before their latest project, they expanded the main barn to consolidate their heifers with the 110-head milking herd. They also built a new calf barn.
“It’s delayed gratification, a step at a time,” Henry says. He liked his old upright silos and says they served the farm well, though he won’t miss climbing up to clear frozen silage from the inside edges with pickaxe in -20 C winter weather.
However, it is the first farm in the region using the block-cutting technique to extract and deliver silage to a robotic kitchen, which is a very popular, classic method in Europe. Lely is otherwise agnostic about the feed storage and handling methods chosen by client farmers, according to DeJong.