By Amy Watkins For the Herald Business Journal
ARLINGTON — A robot helps feed Nick Van Dam’s dairy cows.
The red-and-white automatic feed pusher moves along the feeding alley at Van Dam’s dairy, a nearly 200-acre farm in an urban growth area between Arlington and Marysville. The Lely Juno 100 pushes feed closer to where cows are able to reach it.
“The cows have fresh feed pushed up to them more often,” said Van Dam. “I have it running now 14 times a day. The more they eat, the more they milk.”
Van Dam has owned his dairy farm on 67th Avenue since 1978. He first learned about the Lely Juno 100 after a visit to Excel Dairy Service, Inc. in Mount Vernon.
The business provides equipment, supplies, animal health and services to support and improve the dairy industry. After learning about the robot, Van Dam knew he wanted to see one in action. He traveled to Abbotsford, B.C., in late 2012 to a farm with a Juno.
The robot, which cost about $20,000, works well and has been reliable throughout the more than one year Van Dam has had it.
Before his Juno arrived, Van Dam and his four employees had to manually push feed to as many as 200 cows three or four times a day. They now use their time and equipment on other jobs around the farm.
“I saw it was a way to save labor and the cows would eat more,” Van Dam said.
Excel Dairy Service more than two years ago became a distributor for Lely, a company that services agricultural products including automated milking systems. Based in The Netherlands, Lely’s North American headquarters and production site is in Pella, Iowa.
Customers started asking about Lely products before they were available through Excel Dairy Service, said Aaron Johnson, Northwest sales manager.
Excel Dairy Service has now sold the Lely Juno 100 and two other Lely robots in Washington and Oregon. The Lely Discovery, a mobile barn cleaner, was sold in Randle, a small town near Mount St. Helens. and the owners of Styger Family Dairy in March installed the first robotic milking system in the state.
Linda and Andy Styger added two Lely Astronaut A4 robotic milking systems to their organic dairy farm in Chehalis. Before the robots, the Stygers milked their 90 cows twice daily. Now the cows can be milked up to four times daily and the couple has time to do other things.
“We have gone to grandkids’ basketball games, cheerleading events, and out to dinner,” Linda Styger said. “You still have to do daily maintenance on machines but don’t have twice a day milking you have to be there for.”
The Lely Astronaut typically costs about $250,000 with installation, Johnson said. Like other Lely devices, it’s programmable to fit the needs at different farms.
A collar around the neck of each cow measures activity and possible health issues. That information is collected and downloaded whenever the animal freely walks into the robot. Then, based on that information, the machine automatically dispenses grain and milks the cow or lets her pass through.
“The grain is like candy to them and that’s the motivator for them to go to the robot,” Johnson said. “If it’s time to milk, it will.”
About 450 Lely robotic milking systems were installed in the United States and Canada last year. The third in the state began to be installed in late January in Grays River. While helpful to dairy farmers, Johnson said the Lely Astronaut isn’t an excuse for bad management.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” Johnson said. “It just requires a different skills set and it changes how you work and how you think. It doesn’t mean the (work goes away) but it gives you flexibility in your schedule and that’s probably the biggest thing I hear over and over again.”
Styger and her husband use the 120 pieces of information they receive daily about each of their cows as a management tool. She added that the robots were a choice to continue to own and operate the farm that has been in the Styger family since 1919.
“It’s a lifestyle choice,” she said. “It’s hard on your body and it’s hard to find young people who want to come and do this type of job. We needed something to make it so we can continue milking for another 10 years.”