By Kerry Drager
In recent years the advancements in technology has made many farming practices more efficient and productive. On June 24, individuals interested in the new technology available to the dairy industry are invited to take a tour of Todd County’s first robotic dairy farm at Zigan Dairy in Long Prairie.
Derek and Amanda Zigan knew that their farm needed some updating, but they also wanted to find a way to spend more time with their three children. The young couple looked into their options and robotic milking became their goal.
Robotics free up time spent on milking so that farmers can concentrate their efforts in maintaining their herd. The Zigans’ two Lely Astronaut A-4 milking robots can handle 60 cows per robot, will milk each animal three times and will milk for 24 hours a day. The Lely Juno push feeder and the Lely Discovery alley scraper also takes some of the chores off their daily routine.
“It’s good for us because it frees up the physical labor of milking. You are working just as much, but you’re managing the herd instead of milking cows. You still have to check the cows and the computers, but you can do so much more with this technology. Not only can it help you oversee your farm from home, but you can be in Jamaica, look at your phone and you know what your cows are doing. You don’t even have to be there,” said Amanda Zigan.
The robotics not only muck out the barn, feed and milk the cows, it also provides detailed information about the productivity of the herd. Each cow is fitted with a special collar that communicates to the robots when the animal enters the milking stall. The collars tell the machine which cow is being milked, how much she is milked, how long it took to milk her and her conductivity. The collars also track her movements to inform the farmer if she is ready for breeding again.
Although the technology takes a lot of the guess work out of farming, it is still important to continue to ensure that the herd is healthy, happy and in top performance.
“Robots are not something you can put in and then not attend to your herd,” said Derek Zigan.
Robotic milking is also enjoyable for the cows. The Zigans note that these curious animals tend to be distracted and less cooperative when humans are around. With the machines, the cows enter the milking stalls on their own and are awarded for their visit by a pleasant tasting energy pellet that provides nutrients they need in their diet. It is so effective that cows will sometimes attempt to visit the machine before they are ready for another milking. Due to the collars, the robot knows when a cow is not ready for another milking. To encourage the animal to exit the stall, the machine will vibrate and will not reward her with a pellet treat. It is this gentle milking process that allows for greater production than traditional milking practices.
“Each robot will do 5000 pounds of milk per day. You can see which cows are your good cows and find ways of making your milk production even better. These are things that you couldn’t do without the robots because you were too busy milking your cows yourself,” said Amanda.
The Zigans knew that it was time to make a change when their old barn needed to be replaced and they struggled in finding good farmhands. They had the option of building new or to stop farming. Not wanting to give up on a small farm that the Zigan family has been working for three generations, the couple began researching and touring robotic farms.
“It’s pretty new and not an exact science right now,” said Derek. “You can’t go to just one farm and say that’s what you’re going to do. You can go back and forth with sales people all day, but you need to take your time to go out on the tours and talk to these farmers.”
Despite all the promising features and productivity that comes from having the robots, obtaining the funding for the new technology proved to be quite challenging. Even with their paperwork in order and the research they needed under their belt, the young couple still experienced a lot of financing brick walls.
“It took some time to find someone who would give us the time of day. To work with us and have faith in us. We had three things working against us: We are dairy, we wanted robotics and we are young. But we are pretty persistent people, and we felt that it was our responsibility to the family farm to stay here and keep farming,” said Amanda.
Grants also helped make the improvements to their farm a possibility.
“Those people who give out grants are looking for young and transitioning farmers, and those looking to make their farms more efficient. We met those three qualifications. So don’t be afraid to write those grants. It’s free money,” Amanda advised.
The new barn and updated technology will provide an asset to their children who will carry this family dairy operation through to another generation and era of technological advancements.