The Grunnets milk with two used Lely A3 robotic milking units, which cost less to purchase, rebuild and install than the parlor. 
The Grunnets milk with two used Lely A3 robotic milking units, which cost less to purchase, rebuild and install than the parlor. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
    BROOKLYN, Wis. – James and Joni Grunnet never thought they would be able to afford a robotic milking system. However, when two used Lely A3 robotic milking units came up for sale, milking with robots became a reality for the young couple who had been planning to build a double-8 parlor on their 110-cow dairy, Sugar Brook Dairy, near Brooklyn, Wis.
    “The cost to purchase, rebuild and install the robots was less than what it would have cost us to build the milking parlor,” Joni said. “The two used robots together were less expensive than one brand new robot.”
    The robots, which came from Ohio, were under four years old.
    “These robots fell in our lap, and we didn’t want to pass them up,” Joni said.  “We did a lot of updates to make them current.”  
    The Grunnets fired up the robots for their first milking on Jan. 2, 2018. It was a bitterly cold day with temperatures dipping as low as minus 14 degrees Fahrenheit accompanied by a wind chill of 25 below zero.
    “We had a lot of friends and family there to help that first week,” James said. “We had to physically push each cow into the robot, and although startup was a stressful time, it was also sort of like a party. People brought food. We joked around.”
    The Grunnets have been farming together since 2006 and, in addition to dairy, also farm 400 acres. James and Joni built a freestall barn in 2011 and continued milking in their stanchion barn, which they converted into a 10-stall flat-barn parlor. They built the robotic facility in 2017.
    “It was a big change going from a stanchion barn to robots,” James said.
    Nearly two years in, the Grunnets are liking their robots most days.
    “They have their ups and downs,” Joni said. “But when everything is working well, the robots are really nice.”
    James agreed the end result is great but not the startup, a week he calls hell week and one he would never want to relive.
    “You don’t sleep, and you eat on the run,” James said.  
    By day No. 7, Joni said the company’s representative became like a psychiatrist.  
    “You start breaking down emotionally because you feel like you’re never going to leave the barn again,” Joni said. “The system requires so much monitoring in the beginning as cows learn how to use it. Cows are really full of milk – they’re upset, you’re upset. There’s also a drop in milk.”
    Fortunately, that period did not last forever, and within a few weeks life became a little more normal as cows settled into their new milking routine. And now, the Grunnets are enjoying the many advantages of using robots.
    “We are way more efficient now,” Joni said. “The robots save us a lot of time. We spent seven to eight hours each day milking in the stanchion barn. That takes a lot out of your day. Now, we have more time now to spend with our family and manage the dairy.”  
    The Grunnets have two children, Steven, 11, and Caitlyn, 5.
    “We have more flexibility because we can do chores when we want,” Joni said. “Now we both can go to our kids’ functions and stay the whole time. We don’t have to find hired help or leave early.”
    Family functions and holidays are also better because of robotic milking.  
    “On Christmas morning, we can all wake up together as a family and open presents … and then go do chores after,” Joni said.  
     In the stanchion barn, chores required two to three people. Now, only one person is necessary. And since she no longer milks cows, Joni said she feels better physically.
    “My shoulders, knees and ankles don’t hurt anymore,” she said. “I’m short, so milking was especially hard on my shoulders because of all the reaching.”
    Robotic milking changed Joni’s approach to cow management.
    “I felt like I was a good cow manager when I milked every day,” she said. “But then you go from looking at cows to looking at a computer. When we switched to robots, I had to learn how to read and understand reports, and then take that information and learn how to apply it.”
    Joni spends about 45 minutes to an hour each day analyzing reports.
    “You have to let the computer do its job,” Joni said. “… I take into account everything the reports are telling me and then I do what the computer recommends.”
    Joni said the computer is kind of like having another employee, but that it picks up on stuff a hired hand would probably overlook. Providing an intimate look into cow health and behavior, the computer detects things the naked eye cannot.
    “Before robots, we only monitored temperature,” Joni said. “Now, we monitor all sorts of things, including activity and rumination. Rumination is big – if a cow is not eating, the computer knows. Since switching to robots, we pick up on ketosis far better and sooner. Also, any slight changes in milk conductivity helps us pick up on problem quarters quicker. The activity monitors are also helpful in pinpointing optimal insemination times for cows in heat.”
    Most cows favor one robot over the other except for the herd’s handful of Jerseys, which are not fussy about using the left or right robot.
    According to the Grunnets’ experience, their Jersey cows caught onto the robots fast – within hours – whereas other breeds took a couple weeks to adapt. The Grunnets’ cows, which are mostly Holstein along with some Brown Swiss and Jersey, are milked approximately 2.9 times per day in the robot and average around 75 pounds of milk per cow.
    Calm, relaxed cows are another benefit of this independent milking method.
    “We had a tame herd before, but now I’m almost eaten alive when I go in by the cows,” Joni said. “They’re extremely friendly and happy because they’re free to milk on their own terms. We rarely put cows in a headlock anymore because there’s no need. They just stand there.”
    When it comes to drawbacks, Joni said, “You’re always on call with robots. We get calls in the middle of the night sometimes to move teat cups back in place, for example. It doesn’t happen often, but it’s no fun when you have to get dressed and come down to the barn for 30 seconds of work. Yet it still beats getting a text from your hired hand at 4 a.m. saying he’s not coming to work that day. We used to need a part-time employee, but now it’s just us.”