Drees Dairy uses four Lely A-4 robots that they installed in 2015 as part of an expansion that doubled the size of the herd at the farm near Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The farm’s milk production increased by more than 25 pounds per cow per day when switching from a tiestall barn to robots. 
Drees Dairy uses four Lely A-4 robots that they installed in 2015 as part of an expansion that doubled the size of the herd at the farm near Peshtigo, Wisconsin. The farm’s milk production increased by more than 25 pounds per cow per day when switching from a tiestall barn to robots. PHOTO BY CHUCK GORDON FOR DAIRY STAR

    PESHTIGO, Wis. – Even before he finished college, Mack Drees knew the only place he wanted to work was his family’s farm, Drees Dairy. But Drees knew things had to change in order to support the return of the next generation. He wanted to grow the farm but in a way that would not require more employees. So, he turned to robotics.

    The Drees family installed four Lely A-4 robots in 2015 as part of an expansion that doubled the size of the herd. The decision was the brainchild of Drees, who returned to the farm the year prior after graduating from the University of Wisconsin-Platteville. The family went from milking 120 cows in a tiestall barn to milking 240 cows with robots while keeping their labor force the same. The farm is run by Drees and his brother, Zack, their father, Bill, and their uncle, Dennis.
    “I knew robots were the future,” said Drees, the farm’s herd manager. “And I’m excited about the decision. We really like the robots. My dad and uncle put a lot of faith in my brother and I when we decided this was the way we wanted to go.”
    The Drees family milks 250 cows and farms about 800 acres near Peshtigo. Drees’ grandfather, Henry, started the farm in 1977 and remains an owner along with Bill and Dennis.
    “I think it’s neat we have three generations working together on a farm that isn’t very old,” Drees said. “The goal is for me to own the farm with my brother one day.”
    Drees is never satisfied with satisfactory; therefore, words like OK and good are not part of his vocabulary. Rather, perfect and great are the terms Drees aligns with his work.
    “I’m extremely passionate about this farm, and I’m kind of a perfectionist,” he said.
    This goal-oriented dairyman manages the herd with high energy and a positive mindset. A lover of technology, Drees constantly looks for ways to be more efficient.
    “The main goal of technology is to make a job more efficient,” he said. “You never want to create a new job when buying technology. As dairy farmers, our job is to choose the best tech out there.”
    Robotics changed the dynamics of Drees Dairy and allowed the family to redirect work in more useful ways. Time previously spent milking is now geared toward other tasks designed to improve the overall operation.
    “Whether it’s calf care or tending to cows in heat, we get more in depth with things not enhanced before and look at them under a microscope,” Drees said. “For example, my dad will breed cows three times a day versus once to make sure the optimal insemination point is reached. And I have more time to walk fresh pens and take care of calves. Robots help us be more efficient in our work, and I’ve become a better time manager as a result.”  
    Drees said the list of positives the robots provide is endless, including spurring a dramatic increase in milk. In the tiestall barn, cows averaged 75 pounds of milk per day. Now, cows are averaging 102 pounds of milk daily with 4.25% fat and 3.1% protein. The dairy maintains a low somatic cell count, averaging 57,000 last month. Cow longevity has also improved, with 20% of the herd in their fourth lactation or higher. Older cows are peaking at 140 pounds, Drees said.
    Drees loves robotics and all the data that comes with it, using the information to make management decisions and fine tune management practices. The data he receives is amplified through the farm’s use of TriStar AMR, a testing service for robotic dairy farms.
    Drees finds this tool more efficient than traditional milk testing programs. Previously, Drees Dairy tested milk with a shuttle system that was placed next to the robot.
    “If a cow sees the shuttle, she might not want to enter the robot,” Drees said. “This resulted in fewer visits per cow per day. Also, this system only took one sample, giving you one day’s worth for an average. With TriStar, you get a week’s worth of her average making it seven times more accurate. It’s also less expensive. The annual cost is only slightly higher than what we used to pay for a month of testing.”
    Drees receives reports containing data for each cow, such as pounds of milk, fat average, protein average, total visits, refusals, calving interval, days in conception, inseminations per pregnancy and more.
    “If I see less visits per cow, it tells me we hit our capacity,” Drees said. “I don’t like to go over 63 cows per robot.  Overcrowding causes inefficiency. We want cows to average 2.8 to three milkings per day.”
    Cows milking over 170 pounds a day are visiting the robot 4.5 to five times daily.
    “We find robots help cows carry their peak out longer than if getting milked two or three times a day,” Drees said.
    A system that provides data down to the decimal place is arming Drees with precise figures.
    “It shows me each cow’s milk production down to a T every day,” Drees said. “For example, our top cow is giving 190.4 pounds of milk per day. The data helps us on a day-to-day basis, and the true winner of this program is our nutritionist. Cows are telling us within 24 hours if a change to the ration was good or bad. We can then correct it a touch and be back up on milk. The amount of info TriStar AMR provides is incredible, and the data is down to the second. It might be too much data for some people, but it’s not too much for me. I love it.”
    Another layer of data on the farm comes from the tags cows wear for detecting rumination, activity, milk temperature, among other information. Conception rates dramatically increased with the use of this monitoring system.  
    “It puts eyes on cows 24/7,” Drees said. “We have the technology to treat our herd as if it were a small herd in a tiestall barn with lots of people around. We’re also treating cows a little bit quicker for mastitis and getting to cases faster.”
    Drees makes mating decisions for the farm’s registered Holstein herd. Components, milk and health traits are most important to Drees, who also likes cows that look nice and has started to dabble in type genetics. The farm also does embryo transfer and sells cows monthly to other dairy farmers.
    “I’ve been using the highest genomic bulls and high TPI bulls,” Drees said. “I feel by selecting the best genomic bulls, I can create the best herd in the least amount of time. I have Helix cows entering their fourth lactation because I used him so long ago. He’s in the limelight now, and I’m creating some success with those animals.”
    Drees puts his whole heart into farming while keeping an eye to the future. He would like to see milk production and reproduction levels continue to climb.
    “We’re averaging 102 pounds per cow, and I’m so excited about that,” Drees said. “But my goal is 110 pounds. I’d also like to see our pregnancy rate, which is currently (at mid 40%), get to 50%.”
    Focused on efficiency, cow comfort and consistency, Drees Dairy follows strict protocols in every area of the farm from newborn calf care to cow dry off.
    “You have to be consistent,” Drees said. “You can’t cut corners. There’s no way we can reach 110 pounds of milk if we don’t do everything the best we possibly can. We have to break everything down to the micromanagement level. If you focus on the small things, the big things take care of themselves.”
    Utilizing technology and diving into data has been helpful to Drees in his quest for perfection.
    “I keep pushing efficiency and perfection, not cow numbers,” Drees said. “I’m a very competitive person, and we’re trying to do everything as great as we can and be as efficient and perfect as possible.”