Young farmers beef up on tech at robotic dairy tour
By JANE W. GRAHAM
PULASKI, Va. (Oct. 24, 2017) — A group of young and beginning farmers saw dairy robotics in action with a tour of Kegley Farm’s robotic dairy Sept. 26, learning about the possible job opportunities technology in agriculture offers.
The visit was sponsored by the Virginia Young Farmers and Ranchers Coalition and Virginia Cooperative Extension as part of an on-going series in the New River Valley to acquaint young people interested in careers in agriculture.
“You want to hear from someone doing it,” Kelli Scott, Montgomery County Extension agent, told the 16 participants in the educational activity.
Lisa Kegley, daughter-in-law of the farm’s founder, William M. “Bill” Kegley said the operations of the diversified 1,900-acre farm in the Back Creek section of Pulaski County as well as some leased farms. She said that the three-generation farm has two beef cattle herds in addition to the dairy herd. One is a registered Angus herd and the other is a commercial beef herd.
Lisa’s husband Martin farms with his dad and brother-in-law, Jeff Reeves. Jeff’s wife Ann is a teacher and the older Kegley sister, Beth, is a professor at the University of Arkansas. Young people from both families are in school or launching careers in various agricultural endeavors.
Lisa traced the history of the farm’s founding in 1960 when her father-in-law purchased the original parcel of land that included a small dairy from C. E. “Chic” Richardson, a Pulaski County industrialist and farmer.
The dairy operation has gone through several phases to get to the current setup using robotic milkers, technology that in 1960 would have sounded like science fiction. The robotic system shuts down from noon to 12:30 p.m. and from midnight to 12:30 a.m. to flush the system.
Prior to becoming a farmer’s wife, Lisa said she had a background in working with computers. This proved a big plus when the family made the decision to go with robotics in 2013. She was able to work with the company in getting the system up and running and still plays an important part in its operation.
“In 2011 we started making plans to build a new structure or stop milking,” she told the group. “A lot of time and a lot of planning went into it.”
The difficulty of finding labor for a dairy farm was a factor in the decision. A visit to the first robotic dairy in Virginia, located in Buchanan, helped as well, Lisa said.
As she talked about the farm, Lisa and Barry Musick, second in command to Danny Huff, long-time herdsman at the dairy, guided the visitors through the barn explaining the technology.
In the barn’s main control room, Lisa said the transponders each cow wears on her collar is linked to a computer that runs the four robotic milking units.
Each transponder collects a lot of information about its wearer, including how many times she approaches the robotic milker, how much she eats, her body temperature, how much milk she produces at each milking from each quarter of her udder, her reproductive cycle, her health and more. This is all recorded on a card in the computer file.
Filing out of the control room, the tour group was able to watch the four robotic units, Lely Astronauts, in action as the evening milking was underway.
They were able to see a red laser beam find a cow’s utter and guide brushes and nozzles to clean all four teats. It then guided the individual milking cups onto the teats. Each of these is equipped with its own hose and allows the transponder to collect data about individual quarters of the udder and the milk it produces.
Both Lisa and Scott returned often to the theme that the technology of the future will offer people jobs in agriculture even if they cannot be actual farmers. The need for technicians, nutritionists, financial advisors and support people of many kinds for the industry is expected to continue to grow.
After watching several cows being milked and asking questions about what was happening and why, the visitors were lead into the barn where the cows spend their days and nights. They learned how the robotic milkers are able to send sick cows to a separate area of the barn and how other areas are used. She explained the barn has a scraper system that moves across the floor to remove waste.
The cows have an opportunity to eat from a free stall bunker at the back of the barn and received pellets developed by a nutritionist to meet their needs in a feeder in the robotic unit. This is the bait that attracts the cows the unit.
Lisa said there are a few who are greedy and try to come back for more helpings than they are allowed but the transponder and computer will not let them have more than is programmed.
Sometimes even this advanced technology does not work, Lisa said. Such was the case on Christmas Eve 2016 when two units were down for over 13 hours. She said there were “some pretty unhappy girls” in the barn until the units were back up and running. Their technical help is at least two hours away in Harrisonburg, Va.
With a neighboring robotic dairy that uses the same equipment they try to keep as many spare parts as possible so either dairy can keep operating, she added.
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