By Tom Collins
SUNBURY — The four-year wait for tie-stall robots was worth it for Cloverview Farms.
Milking 126 Holsteins in a 1971 tie-stall barn that needed upgrading, the Sonneveld brothers fancied a robot but didn’t want to switch to a freestall barn. The three brothers — Jeff, 39, Richard, 37 and Robert, 34 — didn’t want to spend $2-plus million on a new build.
The Sonnevelds became interested when they first saw a YouTube video about Roboleo robots years ago and were convinced once they saw the robot in action in a Quebec barn. But the robot’s maker — Milkomax, Solutions Laitières Inc., based in Sainte-Monique, Que. — asked the Sonnevelds to hold off until it had available service technicians.
The four-year wait gave the brothers time to replace the stalls, the milk room and the office before becoming the second Ontario farm to install tie-stall robots: They installed two robots. The first Ontario farm to install a Roboleo is featured on page B9.
“With a freestall, you’re at the mercy of having to trust the cow to go into a stall (but we don’t) have to worry about whether a cow is going to be stubborn,” said Robert Sonneveld. “The milker is just going to go to her and milk her — it’s automatic.”
The Roboleo is mobile, attached to a track between two rows of tie stalls. Stopping behind each cow, the robot lowers a ramp over the manure alley. Free-spinning rollers reach out and pressure the cow’s shoulders to guide the cow backwards. A camera mounted on the robotic arm detects if the next cow is lying down. If so, the robot extends a metallic prod to nudge the cow to stand. After two attempts, the prod emits a small electric shock to assist the cow to stand.
The robots have had an immediate impact on the herd’s health. The somatic cell count (SCC) used to range from 180,000 to 250,000, but the last SCC test was 97,000 and has dipped to as low as 77,000. And while the brothers used to treat one cow a week for mastitis, they’ve only had to treat three cows since the robots were installed three months ago.
The cows are also producing more milk. Each cow averages 28 to 30 kilograms per milking, up from 26 kilograms pre-robot. It’s allowed the Sonnevelds to reduce their herd size from 126 to 120.
The brothers spent a month milking the old way while training the cows to get used to the robots. They continued milking using a three-inch pipeline while they did a dry-run with the robots twice a day for four weeks. The robots prompted the cows to stand and get into position for milking without actually milking the cows. On top of that, the brothers were still milking twice a day — at 5:30 a.m. and 4 p.m.
The prodder was never used during the training, but the preparation helped. The cows were trained to stand when the milker came by and rarely needed to be prodded once the robot started milking.
“That was the most boring, monotonous job,” said Sonneveld. “But I think it was necessary. If we didn’t do the training, we wouldn’t have had the same success.”
The Sonnevelds bed twice a day with chopped straw. The brothers used to go with shavings but find chopped straw has the same benefits but at a cheaper cost.
Three years ago they also started using pasture mats with memory foam. Normally a pasture mat gets firm after a year, but memory foam gives extra cushioning.
It used to take two brothers 4.5 hours each morning and 3.5 hours each evening to milk and feed the cows, plus do chores such as bedding. Now it sometimes only requires one person 4.5 hours in the morning and about an hour in the evening to do the same work.
The robots have allowed the Sonnevelds to spend more time away from the barn. Each brother used to get 1.5 days off a month, which required an extra employee on Sunday nights. When one of brothers went on a vacation, the other two would stress about the extra work. Now each brother works just one fullweekend every three weeks and no hired hand is required.
Sonneveld said the milkers allow him to spend more time with his family. He actually gets to see his daughter in the morning and can now drive her to daycare.
“It’s a life-changer,” he said.
“It was the best decision we made for our wives and families,” said Sonneveld. “Your lifestyle changes for the better. I’m sure our wives would recommend a robot to anybody.”