Ready for the future: Pennock dairy farm features robotic milking system
PENNOCK — In 1953, Dolores and the late Don Youngren bought six spring heifers and started milking cows on their rural Pennock farm.
Today, there are 380 cows on the third-generation Youngren dairy farm and robots do the milking.
Operated by brothers Mike and Dean Youngren and Mike's son Trevin, the state-of-the-art barn is the site of the annual Kandiyohi County June Dairy Days open house this Saturday.
The event is open to the public from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at 10121 120th Street Northwest in rural Pennock.
The Youngren family — which also includes a fourth generation of young children who play in the barns while their dad, grandpa and great-uncle do the work — said they want people to see how well animals are cared for on dairy farms.
"Cow comfort is key. Nutrition is key. Caring for them and to do what's best for the cows to produce a wholesome product of milk, cheese and yogurt for everybody to enjoy," said Dean Youngren.
"If you treat the cows good, they'll treat you good," he said.
The Youngrens also want to demonstrate how cows are milked with a robotic system.
Robots milk cows
After moving to their new barn last spring, the Youngrens transitioned from using a milking parlour where cows are milked at specific times, to a robotic system where cows can be milked whenever they want to in a 24-hour period.
Just to be clear, milking with robots doesn't mean R2D2-look-alikes are in the barn herding cattle.
In the Youngren's clean, quiet and airy barn that uses cross-ventilation to maintain a consistent temperature, there are seven robotic milking stations.
The cows, which have straps around their necks with a computerized identification system, spend time eating in one area and laying on a clean bed of sand in another.
When the mood hits them, one-by-one they walk to the milking station in their section of the barn to get milked.
"A cow can pick her own schedule," said Dean Youngren, during a behind-the-scenes tour of the barn. "The cows are doing what they what, when they want."
Enticed by a cow-candy treat of roasted soybeans that dribble into a feeding cup, the cows stand on a scale in the single-stall milking station that's protected by a set of one-way swinging gates.
While the cows are distracted nibbling treats, a robotic arm moves underneath them. After water is sprayed on the udder, small rotary brushes scrub it clean.
It's kind of like a stationary car wash where the vehicle stands still and water nozzles and brushes move around it.
A camera and flashing laser lights that map the contours of a cow's udder guide the robotic arm that attaches milking units to each teat. After being milked, a robotic cup applies a teat dip to kill bacteria and the cow leaves the station.
There's usually another cow waiting to step up for her turn.
The cows are milked three times a day.
The computerized system identifies any "lazy" cow in the herd and she's brought in for a missed milking.
Some cows are clever and try to game the system for an additional treat.
The Youngrens have one cow that goes to milking station more than 50 times a day to see if there are any left-over treats in the cup. The robot recognizes her as a frequent flier and lets her pass through without being milked.
The Youngrens say they had excellent herd health before, but the robotic technology and new barn improved animal comfort even more and has increased milk production.
They decided to invest in the robots when they knew Trevin — the third-generation Youngren farmer — wanted to be in the family business.
Concern about a labor shortage was also a factor for installing a robotic system, said Dean Youngren, adding that having robots do the milking saves time — sort of.
While people no longer do the tedious tasks of washing cow udders and putting on and taking off milking units, it takes people to maintain the robotic system, including getting up in the middle of the night when the robots send a breakdown message to the Youngrens' cell phones.
Besides the regular work of planting and harvesting crops to feed the animals, raising calves for replacement milking cows, doing manure management and marketing products, there is an added layer of analyzing new animal data.
The animal identification system can detect about 100 different aspects of each cow that can be tracked on a computer system and used to increase a cow's potential.
Key data includes milk production, when cows are ready to be bred and how often a cow chews its cud, which gives clues to their activity and overall health, said Mike Youngren, who specializes in the health of the dairy herd and analyzes the data to make decisions on animal care.
Having robots do the daily milkings also gives the family some flexibility with their schedules.
In the past, they missed family or social events in order to be in the barn to start milking at the same time every day.
Now, the cows are milked all day and all night and the family doesn't need to be there at a set time.
Ready for the future
Hosting the Dairy Days event is an opportunity to show the public, including people who may not have a direct connection to agriculture, the care involved with raising animals, said Dean Youngren.
It's also an opportunity to celebrate family milestones.
Dolores Youngren said this year marks the 70th anniversary she and her late husband, a World War II veteran, purchased their farm with the financial help of the GI Bill. Saturday also marks the day her great-granddaughter, Kendra, turns 5.
Standing in the barn with the robots, cows and a long history of farming success behind them, the Youngrens said they are equipped for the future.