In 2015, some 6.5% of Canadian dairy farms were already milking automatically with individual box systems. But how many had an automated rotary milking parlor that used milking robots? “A fantastic system like this is not something you can just buy off the shelf. You can’t just stop by your dealership, pick one out, and have it installed overnight,” says Brian Kielstra, manager of Vyefield Farms. “You have to start with thorough research to see how the system can improve your work processes and operational routine, what this means for animal welfare, and of course how cost-effective it is. And there’s nothing more valuable than the input from other dairy farmers based on their first-hand experience!”
A new experience breaks new ground
With a clear goal in mind, the Kielstra family spared neither effort nor expense, traveling from Canada to Germany to see the brand-new GEA DairyProQ milking carousel technology for themselves. “What totally fascinated us was the system developed by GEA where everything happens in the liner, hygienically and gentle on the udder, which was clearly a more pleasant experience for the cows,” recalls Brian Kielstra. “We were also impressed by the precision of the milking robot attaching teat cups round after round. Another big advantage we saw was that the whole milking session can be carried out by one single person. Because like everywhere in the world, it’s hard to get good staff in Canada’s rural areas.”
32 automated milking stalls for better animal health
The Kielstras knew right away that GEA’s automated rotary milking parlor DairyProQ would help them realize their dream of a faster, more efficient operation with healthier animals. And so it was that Vyefield Farms, located outside Abbotsford in southwestern Canada near the US border, became an industry pioneer. “We worked with the Pacific Dairy Center, the GEA dealership that looks after us here in the Fraser Valley, to plan the complex system down to the tiniest detail. That took tons of experience and a huge effort on all sides, especially since this was groundbreaking work. By April 2016, the system with 32 milking stalls was up and running. It was one of the first in North America and the sixth worldwide,” says Kielstra, recalling the design and construction phase, and the moment GEA gave the green light for the start-up.
A new era of hassle-free attaching and relaxed milking
Scientific studies have shown that stress has a significant negative impact on milk production and milk quality. Cows respond positively when the milker starts the milking routine calmly. But if the teat cups are attached in a hectic rush, the cows get stressed and are less ready to give milk. DairyProQ solves this problem by standardizing the milking process. Since the Kielstras began using the DairyProQ five years ago, their milking routine never changes, guaranteeing ideal conditions for relaxed milking every time, around the clock. “We used to milk in a triangle milking parlor, but it was impressive how quickly the cows adjusted to getting onto the carousel,” says Kielstra. “The straight entrance, the gentle rotation and animal-friendly, round-shaped robotic units make it a pleasant experience for the cows. So they stand calmly throughout the whole milking process. Another benefit of the external rotary milking carousel is that every cow can see every other cow. This really relaxes them and you can see how most cows just continue ruminating.”
Full milking in seconds
When a cow enters the DairyProQ milking stall, the system recognizes her via the neck responder. Almost unnoticed, the MilkRack glides under the udder a few seconds later and attaches the four teat cups one by one with the help of a 3D camera. With each teat well-protected in each individual teat cup, the milking begins. Careful stimulation and thorough teat cleaning induce milk letdown. With the foremilk, milk analysis starts per individual quarter and guarantees that only flawless milk flows into the tank. The gentle and swift milking at low vacuum levels ends with teat-by-teat cluster removal to prevent overmilking. This is followed by the dipping process, which coats the sensitive teat skin with a protective agent and seals the still-open teat canal with a barrier against germs.
Saving time and money on animal health management
The milking stall modules not only handle attaching, but also create an ideal opportunity for animal health management. While the system gathers all milking data per cow and per udder quarter, the operator has time to inspect the cows. This makes monitoring very accurate and provides early warning on any anomalies that might suggest illness. “We milk twice a day and about 110 cows per hour. Deviations in milk quantity show up on the touchscreen. With just a few clicks in the herd management system on the PC, we can check on the cows, but also keep an eye on production parameters and system performance. This allows us to then check and monitor specific cows as needed during the next milking,” explains herd manager Kees VanBodegom. “This way we don’t lose time and can initiate appropriate measures right away. The fast and timely intervention not only helps us improve the animals’ health, but also avoid milk losses and save significantly on treatment costs at the same time.”
Improved milk yield and quality
Thanks to a healthy herd, the Kielstras have sustained consistently high milk yields over these last five years. With a current fat content of 4.31%, the average milk quantity for the first lactation is 32.6 kg and ranges between 37.8 to 27.1 kg in the different performance groups. The low somatic cell count of 185,000 in the past five months underscores this outstanding result. The Kielstras are bound to milk quotas, which limits their options for increasing the size of their herd of about 380 lactating cows. But with 32 units, the DairyProQ rotary milking parlor is designed to handle many more cows. This way, the family-run farm keeps all its options open for herd growth.
More milk production solutions by GEA
Vyefield Farms also uses GEA’s CowScout for better heat monitoring. By tracking cow activity, CowScout can identify the ideal time for insemination, thus significantly increasing its success. In addition, GEA’s FRone feed pusher ensures that feed is placed optimally at the feeding table and remains attractive for animals as it is repeatedly pushed toward them on the feeding table. The continuous supply of feed improves feed intake, which has a positive impact on milk yield.
More time for other work on the farm
With its platform strategy and automatic milking stall modules, GEA enables automatic milking in both individual boxes and milking carousels such as the DairyProQ. Both systems make use of the same robot module. This includes the so-called milking technology module, which can be removed for servicing and replaced as necessary in a dedicated service area to minimize down time. For Kielstra, the rotary milking parlor offers a key advantage over free milking in individual boxes: “We still have fixed milking times, but we are much more flexible due to the reduced personnel and time required, which gives us more freedom for other important work on the farm, such as herd management. Plus, every module works independently – so if one milking stall experiences technical problems, we can just switch to another one and easily continue milking without interruption. So far, everything has gone smoothly!”
Attractive workplace for the future
“In the past, milking wasn’t really considered an attractive job,” says Kielstra. “But with a modern system like this, it’s easier to attract junior staff for this line of work.” Instead of having to schedule six hours and the required personnel for each milking session as in the past, the entire milking routine now runs completely automatically. At the same time, heavy physical labor has been significantly reduced. “The DairyProQ rotary milking parlor creates a user-friendly workstation. Everything is easy to understand and can be operated comfortably,” says Kielstra. “It’s modern, state-of-the art and the hours are regular, which makes it especially attractive for young people.” It all gives Kielstra reason to look to the future with optimism. “I’m glad we went down this road together with GEA five years ago,” he says. “The 32 automatic milking stalls pay for themselves thanks to the great labor savings, since we only need one operator at a time!"