ST. CHARLES, Ill. — Transitioning a dairy operation to robotic milkers results in changes for the animals and dairymen, including managing the cows by data.
“That is the challenge we had to overcome initially because dairymen are cow people and we want to be with the animals,” said Andy Lenkaitis, owner of Lenkaitis Holsteins.
“Now when we look at the information on our computer, we need to make a management decision, and it took quite a bit of learning of what reports to use to find out what you needed to do for that day.”
Lenkaitis Holsteins was started in 1983 by Albert and Mary Etta Lenkaitis.
“We really like the Red and White Holsteins,” Andy Lenkaitis said during the eighth annual Dairy Technology Showcase organized by the Illinois Milk Producers Association and University of Illinois Extension.
“My parents started milking with five cows in a tie stall barn,” he said. “Sarah and I took over the farm in November 2014, and my brother ran the farm previously for 19 years.”
About a year later, the family started making plans for the freestall barn with a robotic milking system.
“Our first robotic milking was Jan. 30, 2018, and we haven’t looked back since,” Lenkaitis said.
“We toured a lot of facilities to see how they were managing their herd from day to day,” he said about planning for the new facility. “We made a master plan for the farm to double the number of cows by doing it in stages.”
Step By Step
The first stage was building the freestall barn, the second stage was to transform the tie stall barn into a calf barn and the next stage is to build another dry cow pen.
“Slowly, we’re improving everything we have to eliminate the bottlenecks,” Lenkaitis said.
One of the challenges for the operation is its close proximity to many homes.
“There’s a subdivision that goes around two sides of us, so we had to go through a couple of different permitting bodies to get the facility sited,” Lenkaitis said.
Permits to expand the dairy operation were obtained through the Illinois Department of Agriculture. Lenkaitis also worked with the Kane County Stormwater Plan, which applies to all buildings in the county regardless if they are an agricultural facility or not.
“The building is about 10-feet shorter than I wanted, but I didn’t want to go over the 25,000 square foot limit,” he said. “There is a 15-inch storm water line that runs from this barn and collects all the gutters and eves and goes down to the drainage area.”
The Lenkaitis farm is located within the village limits of Campton Hills.
“This village is only 11 years old, so they don’t have a lot of rules in place,” the dairyman said. “So, they only looked at this room as occupied space, and everything on the other side of the wall was dictated by the state of Illinois.”
When designing the new facility the family built a room adjacent to the freestall barn and placed windows where visitors could see the robotic milkers in action.
“You won’t find this room at a typical dairy farm ,but we set it up for a busload of school kids,” Lenkaitis said. “It is built for doing agrotourism because that is part of our advantage of being in this urban area.”
The freestall barn has 104 stalls.
“We have two GEA Monoboxes that are head to head and the barn has natural ventilation with power assist,” Lenkaitis said. “There are five ridge fans and cross ventilating fans that blow air over the stalls to keep the cows comfortable.”
The three-row barn has a single feed lane and under barn manure storage.
“The stalls have rubber mattresses and we use green manure solids bedding,” Lenkaitis said.
“Every cow made the transition to the new milking system,” he said. “We had one cow that we milked with the robotic system for a couple of months and then sold her because her teats were a little too close and high, but she is still a good milk cow for another dairy.”
Since the cows are moving around more in the freestall barn, Lenkaitis said, hoof care is important.
“We do hoof trimming for the entire herd twice a year, and the cows go through a foot bath twice a week,” he said.
“The nutrition is huge because this is a different way to feed the cows,” he said. “You must pay attention to your TMR and forages because if you have a bad bunch of haylage, you’ll see it in the milk production right away.”
The dairymen drop feed for the cows in the barn about 1 p.m.
“We topdress and reward the high producers in the robot,” Lenkaitis said. “We must make sure we do this properly, so we don’t throw off the pH balance in the rumen. Now we pay more attention to particle length by using a shaker box to make sure we have good quality feed for the cows.”
Equipment monitoring with a robotic system is high priority since there are two units for the entire herd.
“If a Monobox has an issue, half of the cows could be impacted,” Lenkaitis said. “It is important to keep up on equipment maintenance and daily checks to notice when something is going wrong and investigate it.”
The machines send alarms and warnings when there is a problem.
“During startup we were here two to three times a week during overnight for the first couple of weeks,” Lenkaitis said. “In the past six months, I’ve had two overnight calls.”
Responding to these messages, the dairyman stressed is important.
“It may not need something right now, but it usually means something else is going to happen,” he said. “Something happened to cause the alarm.”
The goal for the robotic milkers is quick attachment.
“It is important to be observant and pay attention to the details,” Lenkaitis stressed. “We stand by the box and watch the cows milk to make sure the cows are comfortable.”
For more information about Lenkaitis Holsteins, go to www.lenkaitisholsteins.com.