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Inside The Technology: Dairy Farmer Shifts To Robots

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BERNARD, Iowa - The business of the Round Hollow Farm in Dubuque County focuses on the endless rows of cows.

Mark and Karen Hosch have been here for decades. Mark has lived on this 400-acre farm all his life and the couple has raised four children here.

Yet just as their youngest is about to leave the nest for college, the Hosches embarked on a major change from their usual schedule.

"Three in the morning and three in the evening," Mark said of their twice-daily milking schedule for approximately 145 cows.

In early December, they started the process of converting to operating a 120-head dairy farm with the help of two Lely Astronaut robots from a dealer in Pella.

Hosch said as he came to his decision, some of the early reviews of robotic farming in Wisconsin did not persuade him that this was the ideal time. Yet he saw one operation in nearby Bellevue and, last fall, another robotic dairy farm in Monona and toured a barn there.

The Hosches showed us their operation on Wednesday morning, set around a large barn with the two robots on the eastern edge of the barn.

He pointed at one cow in the five-minute milking session.

"She's got a transponder on the side of her neck, it shows where the teats should be, what the udders should be shaped like and it uses the laser to pick up," said Hosch.

The time to ascertain the exact dimensions of each cow can vary as the lasers search for the udders. For some cows, the lasers pick up and the machine watches on right away. For others, the machine needs a minute or more to hook on.

Multiple cameras track the process around each robot.

"It remembers the last 30 times the teats were seen for each cow and it uses that information to make it faster," said Hosch.

Instead of spending the hours hooking up to a milking parlor, now Hosch spends much of his time in an office on top of the robots, overlooking the barn.

"I can see every cow in the barn and I can see the ones in the corner on the monitor," he said, pointing to a large screen showing multiple live video feeds of his cows.

Hosch recognizes he is still in the early stages in his transition to robotic milking. The total livestock is cut to 120, as each robot can handle about 60 cows per day.. Yet Hosch said their productivity is about on par with the previous volume of approximately 145 cows.

The major difference now is that the milking is done on the cow's schedule and not when the farmer is available.

"It's more management now," said Hosch. "All of this information, it's at your fingertips and you can take better care of the cows. These cows are going to last a lot longer. There is no fighting among the cows. Come in here, milk, get their feed. You'll get older cows and higher-producing cows."

For any farmer with livestock, the opportunity to get away from the constant attention of feeds and caring for animals is rare. As Hosch becomes more comfortable with robotic operations, he finds the ability to use his Smartphone to track cows and watch video feeds to allow this rare freedom to get away.

"The robot will call me with a voice and tell me what the problem is and I can check to see which one is shut down or caught in a cage," Hosch said as he demonstrated the video capabilities on his phone.

This is not an inexpensive transition as Hosch said each robot costs about $200,000 plus the expense of an addition onto his barn to track the animals. Yet he does recognize that this technology is developing and growing each month.

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