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Robotic Husbandry is Here

Cows milked by robots in Kewaunee County
Cows milked by robots in Kewaunee County
Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images

The future of dairy farming is here. Located in New Franken, Abts Bou-Matic is transforming area dairy farms--small, medium, and large--by using state-of-the-art, robotics technology. Abts Bou-Matic, a family-owned business, has been in operation for more than 45 years and has earned a regional reputation for dairy refrigeration systems as well as the installation of milking pipelines. Co-owner Greg Abts took over the reins of Abts Bou-Matic from his father, Cal, and his uncle, Cliff, more than 35 years ago. During that time, the business has expanded from one employee to 26 employees, taking the dairy farm to the next level--full automation of all milking operations.
Waiting in the wings while paying their dues is the family's next generation of stakeholders, key employees such as Greg's daughter, Missy. After graduating from the University of Wisconsin at Eau Claire with a Bachelor's degree in business management and entrepeneurship, she has managed the New Franken location for four years. She has also managed Abts Bou-Matic at the north location in Gillett.
One of the first steps that Abts Bou-Matic took toward full automation of the milking process came with the sales and installation of milking detachers to local and regional dairy farms. As the name suggests, a detacher is a device that enables the cow's milking apparatus to be removed automatically, translating to savings in labor cost to the dairy farmer.
Four years ago, Abts Bou-Matic became a stakeholder in Abts Lely Center, the robotics division of the long-standing company. "Since becoming a Lely Center, the whole process (of a cow) entering the stall is completely (automated), from the cow coming in by herself, feeding herself, milking herself, and prepping herself," Abts said.
Based in Pella, Iowa, Lely manufactures highly-advanced robotics equipment for dairy farms. The international corporation has its headquarters in The Netherlands.
"It (the robot) takes about 75% of the labor out," Abts said. "The biggest benefit to a dairyman is that it allows him to manage his cows and have the machine do the tedious, three times a day, monotonous milking procedure and the machine does it very accurately, very precisely, and is very repeatable.
"We consider any dairy that has 50 cows to 1000 cows as a viable option (for full automation)," Abts continued. "Dairy farms over 1,000 cows have a different set of rules because their objectives are different, every installation is scrutinized and inspected by state and federal agencies, (including) Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, (and) we (also do installations) for up to 10,000 cows."
Abts said that robotics help make small dairy farms more competitive with large dairy farms. With larger labor costs, small dairies are at a competitive disadvantage due to the challenges they face in assembling a full labor force, challenges which increase their production costs and long-term viability. As costs, including labor, increase, implementing dairy farm robotics, especially at smaller dairy farms, is a no-brainer.
"Larger facilities always have jobs, they can always have a (full) shift, small dairies have a bigger labor problem than large dairies, you cannot have a shift when it only takes two hours to milk," Abts said. The economies of scale on a large dairy farm, he said, make their operations leaner and less costly to operate per head of cattle.
Abts Bou-Matic currently employs five technicians, Abts said. At different levels of training and experience, the pool of technicians, who are trained by the Lely Company, in turn, teach the farmer how to maintain and operate their automated machinery on a daily basis, which includes cleaning, inspection, and calibration. Each robot can handle up to 60 cows, Abts added.
The robot is equipped with a laser that locates a cow's teats as well as a camera that monitors the activities in the stall, creating a sort of feedback loop for the robot.
"A robot can monitor about 140 data points, some of those points are milk color, milk conductivity from each quarter, cow activity, monitoring of the estrus cycle, and it also monitors how much the cow is chewing (a test of feed quality), milk temperature...some of these data points, such as weigh scales are options, some are not."
Remote monitoring software makes the job of milking that much easier.
"We also have 'T for C' which means 'time for cows' which is a way to monitor what the cattle are doing, how much they're producing, how much they're eating, how much they're sleeping, everything that's going on," Abts explained. The near future looks bright for farm robotics, Abts said. "I see two different kinds of dairy farms, small and large," he added. "Ten years down the road, you probably won't see an intermediate-(sized) dairy farm."
The future also looks promising for young people who want to train for positions in the industry, Abts explained.
"I need more tech-savvy, more business-savvy young recruits," Abts said. "We have an apprenticeship program here, we usually add one refrigeration apprentice a year...on the refrigeration end of it, you learn a lot of things, including a lot of electronics...we pay kids to go to school, it is staggered so every other Friday, we have three kids in the five-year course right now at NWTC, it allows you to learn and apply what you are learning to the real world.
Abts Bou-Matic pays their recruits a salary while they work and also pays for their tuition.
"Abts Bou-Matic supplies solutions to dairies of all sizes," Abts concluded. "We really want to emphasize that point."

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