Dry cows rest one side of the facility the Ainsworth family built in 2019 on their dairy near Shawano, Wisconsin.
PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
Dry cows rest one side of the facility the Ainsworth family built in 2019 on their dairy near Shawano, Wisconsin. PHOTO BY STACEY SMART
     SHAWANO, Wis. – Life is good at Shawland Dairy. The cows take care of milking and are producing more milk than they ever have. Cow health is also on the up and up, and the Ainsworths are enjoying a more laid-back lifestyle.
“Since we switched to robots, we haven’t looked back,” Matt Ainsworth said. “We don’t miss our old facility or how we used to do things. This is relaxing, and we have a lot more time off.”
Shawland Dairy was a stop on the Professional Dairy Producers Dairy Robotics Tour July 15. The event gave dairy farmers and other industry professionals the opportunity to see robots in action at three dairy farms in Shawano County.
Shawland Dairy is operated by brothers Kevin and Jim Ainsworth, and Kevin’s son, Matt. The Ainsworths milk 120 cows with two Lely A5 robots and farm 400 acres near Shawano. The family built a new barn and switched to robots in 2019 – the same year Ainsworth came aboard – and is loving the benefits of their robotic facility, which includes better cow comfort, higher production and labor efficiency.
“We weren’t able to get help so we figured robots might not be a bad deal,” Ainsworth said. “I laughed at the idea early on when visiting another robot farm. I said, ‘We’ll never do that,’ but here we are.”
The Ainsworths were milking 115 cows housed in a freestall facility built in the mid-1980s when they decided it was time for a change.
“Our old barn was about toast,” Ainsworth said. “It was time to move out.”
Milk production increased substantially in the new barn – jumping from between 75 and 80 pounds of milk per cow per day to 100 pounds. The farm averages 8.7 pounds of milk per minute, and cows are visiting the robots 2.6 times per day. However, Ainsworth would like to see that number at 2.7. The Ainsworths have found that some cows milk on the same schedule as the parlor.
“The biggest benefit to us is labor,” Ainsworth said. “If we had put in a new parlor for this amount of cows, we would’ve had to milk three times a day, and the three of us knew we weren’t going to be the ones doing that. So, when the numbers came back for the robots, we said, ‘Let’s do it.’ It’s always hard to spend that kind of money, but we got to a point where we had to.”
Milk quality is another area that benefitted from the transition to robots. Somatic cell count dropped significantly which Ainsworth attributes to better teat ends and more frequent milking. Cow health has improved as well.
“Activity monitors changed the game for cow health,” Ainsworth said.
Cows rest on deep-bedded sand stalls, which Ainsworth said is an improvement over their old barn where sand was poured over concrete stalls.
“I would never do anything but deep-bedded sand,” he said.
Previously housed in a tiestall barn with no fans, dry cows are now located under the same roof as the milking herd. One side of the barn contains 116 stalls for milk cows, and the other side of the barn is designated for closeup and dry cows.
“Housing dry cows here was a smart move,” Ainsworth said. “The dry cow area is a huge improvement over what we had before. It’s better for the cows and makes our life easier. We can have a fresh cow in the robot within 10 minutes. I believe this area is to thank for our increase in milk.”  
Ainsworth said cows do not seem to age as much either.
“Since moving into the new barn, we haven’t gotten rid of a cow for being old,” Ainsworth said. “That was a problem in our old barn. I still have a couple cows with stiff legs, but they do well in here.”
Instead of feeding a pellet in the robot, the Ainsworths use ground feed similar to a protein mix, with some cows receive up to 18 pounds per day.
“We’re milking 120 cows right now which is a little less than normal,” Ainsworth said. “We’ve been up to 141 in this barn, but that made me nervous. Heifers don’t like busy robots.”
The dairy usually has to fetch three or four cows morning and night, and heifers are kept separate from the rest of the herd for 14 days to allow for quicker training.
“Robots are completely different than milking in a parlor, and a fetch pen is essential,” Ainsworth said. “Our cows are not used to being chased anymore. You can’t take parlor habits and turn them into robot habits. It isn’t going to work. You have to let cows be cows.”
The Ainsworths also created a separate pen for late-lactation cows. Here, cows are fed dry hay, and visits to the robots are limited.
“We try to disturb cows as little as possible,” Ainsworth said. “We aim to do herd checks, add sand and run the footbath all at once to minimize disruptions. We try to be hands-off but not absent.”
Adding an outside alley to keep out rain and incorporating more space on the ends of the barn are items the Ainsworths would have done in hindsight. Ainsworth also wishes they would have put in more man passes for people to get in and out of pens more quickly.
“There are none in the dry cow pen, and that’s a pain,” he said.
The healthy, happy, high-producing cows at Shawland Dairy seem to be enjoying the robots as much as the Ainsworths, who built the barn with expansion in mind. They are also working on building a manure pit.
“I didn’t want to build myself into a corner,” Ainsworth said. “We’re set up to expand in the future if we want.”