A cow enters one of the robots at Olson Dairy Farms near Birnamwood, Wisconsin. The herd is  milking around 95 pounds per day on 2.7 robot visits. 
A cow enters one of the robots at Olson Dairy Farms near Birnamwood, Wisconsin. The herd is milking around 95 pounds per day on 2.7 robot visits. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
    BIRNAMWOOD, Wis. – Having more time to spend with family is Kurt Olson Jr.’s favorite thing about his farm’s robotic milking unit. He likes to go camping and attend family events, and milking with robots has given Olson the type of freedom that is often hard for farmers to attain.
    “The flexibility and free time robots provide is a big benefit,” Olson said. “The beauty of robots is there’s no timetable. You set your own timetable. The flexibility is what I really like and knowing the cows can milk themselves. I can start chores whenever I want.”
    The Olsons milk 630 cows and crop 1,450 acres near Birnamwood. Olson is the third generation to operate his family’s farm. He and his wife, Krysta, who farm with their four boys – twins Luke and Carter, 10, Evan, 6, and Reid, 4 – bought the farm from his parents, Kurt and Cindy, in 2019. At the time, the Olsons were milking 500 cows in a double-8 parlor built in 1999. When the time came to upgrade facilities, the Olsons chose to integrate Lely robots into an existing freestall barn. They made a 334-by-178 addition to the barn and fired up their 10 Lely A5 robots March 2, 2020.
    “Overall, I’m happy, and I’d do it all again in a heartbeat,” Olson said. “Life is so much simpler.”
    Olson Dairy Farms was featured during the Professional Dairy Producers Dairy Robotics Tour July 15. During this event, dairy farmers and other industry professionals had the opportunity to see robots in action at three Shawano County farms.
    Labor issues were the driving force behind Olson’s decision to go with robots.
    “We used to have seven employees milking 24/7,” Olson said. “Now, I have my right-hand man, Jeremy Schmidt, and a barn guy, Tyler Giddings, who focuses on animals, as well as a couple part-time people.”
    The cow barn is not the only place the Olsons are slashing labor costs. Last year, they put in a Alma Pro automatic calf feeder with three feeding stations that cut labor from six hours down to about an hour. Calves are also growing bigger as a result of the new feeding method.
    “Robotics minimize labor,” Olson said. “They provide huge labor savings.”
    Olson said he cut at least 40 hours of labor per day between the barn and calf barn.
    Since switching to robots, milk production has climbed 10 pounds. In the parlor, cows averaged 85 pounds a day. Now, they are milking around 96 pounds with 4.1% fat and 3.3% protein on 2.7 robot visits per day.
    “I didn’t think it was possible,” Olson said. “It didn’t happen right away. This past March was our turnaround point. We also changed nutritionists, and our new guy brought a lot of robotics knowledge.”
    Olson tried three feed options in the robot – a traditional pellet, fine ground feed and corn gluten – before deciding on a pellet.
    “We like the consistency of that pellet,” he said. “High producers receive 11-12 pounds, but we’re trying to cut back. I didn’t like the corn gluten as the fines and pellets would separate. I also didn’t like the fine ground feed.”
    Olson and his team use bi-fold gates for fetching and sorting. Cows are fetched at 3 a.m. and 3 p.m.
    “The gates work great,” Olson said.
    The farm’s nine-row addition to its freestall barn features 360 stalls and an area for dry cows as well as a maternity pen measuring 84 feet by 48 feet. In addition, there are stalls for heifers, which enter the main dairy barn when four months pregnant. The barn includes a fetch pen for fresh cows and lame cows, and fresh animals stay in the sort pen for 10 days. Olson said the barn is set up for one guy to handle everything.
      “The maternity pen was really important to me,” he said. “We used to have a 12-by-12 pen that calved everything, and I knew I wanted a lot bigger pen in the future.”
    The change to robots also brought upon a change from alternative bedding to sand bedding. The Olsons tore out mattresses in the older part of the barn and now bed twice a week with 5 inches of sand.
    “The biggest thing we noticed with robots is that the cows’ demeanor changed. They are very calm and laid back,” Olson said. “I spend more time with the cows now than I ever used to, which is not a negative for me. I enjoy it.”
    Olson does not get stressed by robot calls.
    “Robot calls don’t bother me a bit,” he said. “If a robot isn’t able to milk cows for some reason, I’ll get a notice. Sometimes it just needs to be restarted – it’s as simple as that. When you have robots, you need a good dealer and good service. Those are the most important things. We make sure we do all of the scheduled maintenance.”
    After getting production where he wants it, Olson is now ready to tackle somatic cell count. Currently around 120,000 to 150,000, Olson is striving to bring that number down.
    Olson has advice for dairy farmers considering robots.
    “Quit wasting time,” Olson said. “I know it is a big decision, but just jump in and go. If I could do it again, I wouldn’t put myself through all those sleepless nights. The robots have given me huge peace of mind.”