Craig Finke observes the operation of an automated feeding system he recently installed at his dairy. After touring dairies in The Netherlands he decided to purchase both the feeding system and a robotic milking machine. He believes the system has reduced his level of stress as well as that of his cows.
Craig Finke observes the operation of an automated feeding system he recently installed at his dairy. After touring dairies in The Netherlands he decided to purchase both the feeding system and a robotic milking machine. He believes the system has reduced his level of stress as well as that of his cows.
NASHVILLE, Ill. — A first-in-the-continent automated feeding and milking system at a dairy here may result in happier and healthier cows.

Craig Finke, a fourth-generation Washington County dairy farmer, took the plunge last November, totally automating his dairy by purchasing the equipment. His farm is the first in North America with the Trioliet automated feeding system.

Last November, Finke installed the feeder along with the robotic milker — both made by companies in The Netherlands — in a new, 24,000-square-foot barn.

The new system has not only freed him up so that he can tend to other duties on his farm, but he is convinced it has reduced stress in his cows and made them healthier.

“It’s a lot different than what we were used to. The atmosphere is just a lot better in here,” Finke said. “The cows stay pretty cool. There is no comparison. They’re as calm as they can be. You walk up to them now, and they just want to play.”

The feeding system consists of several bins containing food and nutrients, adjacent to an electrified track on which a wagon moves through the barn. Acting on orders programmed into the onboard computer, the cart collects components of the ration, mixes them and delivers feed to the cows.

“There are really no limits to what this thing is capable of,” Finke said.

Capacity is 130; there are 117 cows in the barn now. The automated feeder collects and delivers the feed according to needs of the animals.

Milking cows are fed eight times daily, while dry cows and heifers receive three meals. Milking cows help themselves to the robotic milker, which automatically attaches suction cups, draws milk and collects data on individual cows.

Automated systems are becoming more common. There are a number of reasons for the popularity, despite the high cost — one robotic milker can cost nearly $200,000. Among them is the freeing up of time for the farmer.

“Time is a huge benefit,” Finke said. “Having a milking parlor and running cows through two or three times a day — that’s what kills dairy farmers. This does a wonderful job of getting rid of the burden.”

There is no limit to the number of bins one can install as part of the feeding system. The wagon in Finke’s barn gathers the feed and minerals from the bins by hydraulics and then makes a 90-degree turn into the main portion of the building, where most of the cows await their meals.

Finke originally was interested only in the feeding system. After learning about it, he traveled to Holland and toured several dairies where the equipment is installed.

Most of those dairies also had robotic milkers. The pairing of the two systems intrigued him.

“I got to see how well these work together and complement each other,” he said. “These keep the cows moving all day long. They get up, eat, drink and move around. It gets them active.”

Unlike more sophisticated machines, Finke’s robotic milker does not have biometrics, in which health information of cows is collected. But it is fully automated, with feed delivery tied to individual milk production.

Leg tags on each animal allow the computerized milking machine to identify the cows and keep track of their activity, aided by a pedometer worn by the animals.

Finke’s automated feeding and milking system not only saves time, but appears to have a soothing effect on him.

“You lose burnout factor,” he said. “You have a whole lot of desire to want to manage them more.”

He believes the new, automated system is resulting in healthier cows. He related that a neighbor recently came to him, asking if he had any antibiotic for a sick heifer.

“I ended up having to dig around and look for something. The newest bottle of medicine was from back in January,” Finke said.

“Antibiotic usage has gone way down. I haven’t treated a cow in two months. I think a reduction in stress is a lot of it, probably as much as anything. Their stress level comes down. They stay cleaner, happier.”

Finke is happy with the system so far. He has high expectations for its future.

“It’s a big investment, so I hope I did the right thing,” he said.