TREMONT, Ill. — The freestall barn at River Valley Dairy is
designed to run on cow time.
“Part of the reason we went to robots is we want cow health
to be superb,” said Gregg Sauder, who owns and operates River Valley Dairy with
his wife, Cindy, and their seven children. “There are no people in there rushing
The Sauder family provided a tour of its Jersey operation
during the Dairy Technology Showcase, sponsored by the Illinois Milk Producers’
The freestall barn is set up for 300 cows with a feed alley
down the center. The cows are milked by four Lely Astronaut A3 robotic milkers.
“We are currently milking 240 cows, and each machine can
handle about 75 Jersey cows,” Sauder said.
“The speed cows go through their life cycle is at least half
the speed you and I move cows,” he added. “If you’re moving cows at your
slowest, that’s twice as fast as she really wants to go.”
The Jersey cows wear a collar for identification. The floor
of the Astronaut A3 is a scale for weighing the animal, as well as unit
“The floor is live, and it knows where her four feet are so
as she moves the arm moves with her,” Sauder noted. “The machine has milked her
many times and has memorized exactly the position of her udder in relationship
to her feet.”
Each cow is fed protein pellets during the milking process.
“The pellets are the secret to the system, if that cow
desires the ration, that’s the key,” the dairyman explained.
“We’re feeding for 60 pounds of milk, so there is (total
mixed ration) in the aisle and cows get 15 pounds in the robot unless she is a
heavy producer and then she is fed accordingly,” he said. “The robot knows how
long she milked last time, so it sprinkles her ration the whole time she is
Cows have the opportunity to enter the robotic milker
throughout the day whenever they desire.
“There has to be at least six hours in between milkings,”
Sauder said. “Our cows are averaging 2.9 times milking per day.”
The dairyman is very pleased with the cow health, cow
temperament and milk quality of his herd with the use of the Astronaut A3.
“The cow is relaxed, and after milking the gates open. She
can go at any time. She’s on her own time,” he said. “When she leaves, she walks
slowly, and you’ll see in the barn the cows are extremely gentle.”
There are alleys at each end of the freestall barn.
“So if a 2 year old is scared to come through the social
area, she can go down the alley, come to the milker and go back out the same
way,” Sauder explained. “If a barn is set up correctly, you’ll see one-third of
the cows milking, one-third of the cows using free stalls and one-third of the
cows at the bunk eating.”
An advantage of a robotic system is the barn can be wider
and not as long because not all 300 cows are eating at one time.
“The barn can be shorter with more rows, so this is a
six-alley barn,” Sauder noted. “The stalls have gel mats, which are new
technology that has been out about 18 months, and sawdust is put on top of the
Cows are fed twice a day in the freestall barn.
“The robotic feed pusher runs every hour on the hour to push
up feed,” the dairyman said. “This has been a tremendous asset. I really like
what it does for us.”
The heifer barn is a twin barn to the freestall barn. It can
hold a little more than 300 head, and heifers move into this facility at 110
days of age from the calf barn.
“We use the headlocks to breed heifers and implant embryos,”
“Our manure system and milk tank is sized for 600 cows,” he
added. “It would be pretty easy to go to 600 cows by installing four more
robotic milkers and adding a milk line to this building.”
The calf barn includes 22 individual pens for newborns.
Calves stay in these pens up to 14 days old.
“My daughter, Jeni, runs the calf facility, and she
hand-feeds these calves twice a day,” her dad said. “When Jeni feels the calves
are attacking the bottle, the calves are moved to the computerized
Each group pen can hold 25 calves, and they have a Lely
robotic calf feeder which identifies each calf by its magnetic ear tag.
“At 100 days, we start weaning them back,” Sauder said. “You
do not hear a calf bellow on this farm when it is weaned.”
The calf barn is insulated, but not heated.
“The vent system runs 24/7, and all the curtains are
computer controlled,” Sauder said.
“We have two concepts for our herd — we have a show herd,
and we are also focused on genomics,” he said. “We have a full-time vet on
staff, and we flush cows every week.”
About 20 bulls from River Valley Dairy currently are in
“We pull hair samples to check genomics,” the dairyman said.
“The boys have a very good handle on the value of these bulls and heifers before
we do marketing.”
The show barn features 20 box stalls.
“I work full-time in this barn,” Nic Sauder said. “We will
be showing these cows at the state fair, World Dairy Expo and at Louisville, and
we also have a couple donor cows in here since we do the flushing in this
“These cows are milked in a flat 12 twice a day, and Nic is
in charge of that,” his dad said.
All of the Sauder children are involved with 4-H.
“We are pro 4-H,” the dairyman stressed. “And we work
together as a family.”
“I can’t think of anything better as a dad to have my kids
up at 5:15 in the morning, and they don’t walk back in the house until 8:45 at
night,” he said.
“They learn a work ethic, and I don’t think there is a
better way to raise a farm family,” he added.