Oldest dairy in Delaware is first to embrace robotic milking
HOCKESSIN, Del. — Ironically, one of the oldest farms in Delaware is the first in the state to install robotic milking equipment.
Woodside Farm Creamery in Hockessin was established in 1796 by the ancestors of current owner Jim Mitchell, the seventh generation of his family to farm the land which is a few miles from the Pennsylvania state line. The farm was mainly a dairy operation for its first 165 years, until Mitchell’s parents, Joe and Kathy, gave up milking cows in 1961 and turned to various other crops, including poultry, eggs, sheep, flowers and pumpkins.
In 1995, the cows returned. Woodside is one of only four remaining working dairy farms in New Castle County, and the only one currently with its own creamery on site. Decades earlier, the dairy’s main source of income had been butter, made from the cream of their cows’ milk. Mitchell and his wife, Janet, looked for a new way to add value to the milk and decided to sell ice cream. After attending an ice cream making short course at Penn State University, Mitchell came home to turn a farm building into an ice cream plant. An old wagon shed was converted into a retail stand. By 1998, Woodside Farm Creamery was producing some of the best ice cream in Delaware from their own Jersey cows.
Forty cows make up the milking herd. One person could do the milking alone. “I don’t mind milking,” Mitchell said, admitting he would rather not have to be there to do it at specific times twice a day. He prefers flexibility.
Mitchell’s father, at age 90, is still active, and was still milking cows a year ago, with some help, when the decision was made to invest in robotic milking.
“We debated whether to do the whole project,” Mitchell said, “but we felt like we had built a brand for our ice cream around the cows and we wanted continue do what we were doing.”
Besides, he figured, “Someday my father will tell me to milk my own cows.”
With the current labor situation, it’s not easy to get farm labor. “We took all that into account and decided robots would be a good move,” he said.
Equipment was ordered from DeLaval. “Their equipment has been around for a long, long time,” Mitchell said. “My father and grandfather used that brand of milker.
“They came and installed the equipment. They did a very good job. And they’ve been very good with support for it, which is one big reason we went with them. They had serviced our milking parlor before. We knew the dealership and they have been good with us for years. They are good people to deal with.”
Mitchell said he’s not a computer person.
“I was struggling at first. I got frustrated with the machine a couple of times, but the dealer said to call if we need anything. They’ve been good at working through the issues with start up and helping us learn things the machine can do.”
Mitchell had a double-three herringbone milking parlor which he replaced with a new parlor designed around the robotic milker.
Cows have access 24 hours a day. They wander in whenever they feel like it. “We’re finding that’s generally three to four times a day,” Mitchell said.
Each cow has a transponder on its collar. The robot knows which cow is at the milker and whether she has permission to be milked or to be fed. Mitchell explained that after a cow has been milked, there is a five-hour delay until she is milked again. If it’s too early, the robot does not offer feed but automatically opens the gate to let her out in what is called a “pass through.”
Mitchell said, “We don’t give our cows grain in the winter when they are dry, and dry cows do not get permission.”
Most dairymen using the system that Mitchell has talked to say their quantity of milk has increased because cows are milked when they want to be.
“We can treat the cow as a individual with feed, the way we used to with a stanchion barn. If a cow produces a lot, she requires more energy, so we give her more feed. If she’s at the end of her lactation, she doesn’t need as much energy, so we give her less. Cows can be treated as individuals yet still be in a herd situation.”
The robot washes each teat, one at time. It moves teat to teat by a pattern, Mitchell explained. Then it grabs the milking cups, each one of the four dedicated to a given quarter to milk. The robot puts on one at time.
A read-out on the screen tells how much each quarter is producing and what the flow rate is. There’s a spot on the screen that shows the total milk produced by that animal at that milking.
“A different area of the screen can pull up the cow’s history while she’s in the stall, so we see if she’s not producing what she ought to. We had one yesterday that didn’t seem right, but we got on the computer and she’s coming back up. We can tell from her production she’s doing better.
“The robot will check for mastitis or any infection and alert us. We can set a threshold and have the robot automatically dump the milk if it’s exceeded. The same with blood in the milk — the robot will detect the blood and dump the milk.
“It’s pretty amazing, all the information it gives, and all around what it can do,” he said.
Would Mitchell recommend a robot to other dairymen? “I think so. Each farm is unique. We felt like it was something that would help us. We’re the first in the state. We can talk about our cows being robotically milked. It’s good to be first every once in a while.”
The systems are not cheap, he added. But there are lots of advantages, like labor savings, and little things that all add up. “The information we glean is almost overwhelming — on feed consumption, milk production, health… It’s a herd health management program. All the vet records are in the computer, too.”
In 1996, the Mitchells celebrated their 200th year of family-owned farming in New Castle County and the farm was recognized by the state of Delaware as one of the few remaining Centennial farms in the First State.
The Mitchells are hoping that someone from the next generation may be interested in continuing Woodside Farm for at least the eighth generation.
Mitchell said, “People really appreciate the fact that we’re still here with the farm. And they appreciate the fact that we have a place they can come and spend some time with their families and friends, sit under the oak tree and relax.”
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