Gregg Sauder (left) talks about the calf barn at River Valley Dairy. Sauder, together with his wife, Cindy, and seven children, welcomed visitors to their Jersey operation during the Dairy Technology Showcase, sponsored by the Illinois Milk Producers’ Association. The calves in this barn are fed at automated feeding stations, and the tour also included the opportunity to see the Lely Astronaut A3 milkers in action.
Gregg Sauder (left) talks about the calf barn at River Valley Dairy. Sauder, together with his wife, Cindy, and seven children, welcomed visitors to their Jersey operation during the Dairy Technology Showcase, sponsored by the Illinois Milk Producers’ Association. The calves in this barn are fed at automated feeding stations, and the tour also included the opportunity to see the Lely Astronaut A3 milkers in action.
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 cows.”

The Sauder family provided a tour of its Jersey operation during the Dairy Technology Showcase, sponsored by the Illinois Milk Producers’ Association.

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 alignment.

“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 milked.”

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 mats.”

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,” Sauder said.

“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 feeder.”

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 stud.

“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 barn.”

“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.