H&JJ Johnson Dairy Goes Robotic

A parlor that needed replacement and high labor costs resulted in a decision by Howard, Joe, and Jamie Johnson to install four Lely Astronaut A3 robotic milking machines at H&JJ Johnson Dairy last October. After three months, they’ve had less stress in finding and managing good help, and their cows appear healthier and give more milk. “They’re being left alone and not chased around as much,” observes Joe. Added to that, the Johnsons have cut their labor costs by 80-100 hours per week, which has dramatically improved the business’ cash flow.

Joe’s dad, Howard, and brother Jamie raise the dairy’s young stock at their original farm near Becker. They also take care of the fieldwork and run the family’s custom chopping business from that location, while Joe manages the milking herd from their South Haven location.

“We’re running right around an 80-lb. tank average with an average 2.8 milkings per cow per day,” says Joe of his 215 cows in milk. The milking herd is fed a protein pellet supplied by Munson Lakes Nutrition that makes them want to come into the robot more often. “Before installing the robots, a lot of our high-producing cows were leaking milk,” Joe observes. “Milking more often helps them achieve a higher peak.”

Joe Johnson (left) and Jeff Thorpe (right) with a
Lely Astronaut A3 robotic milking machine.
Milking with robotics does require more labor initially. Cows that have not been milked robotically must be manually guided into the machine, which employs lasers to record the locations of their teats. But once the cow discovers that the pellet they desire can be found in the robot, they’ll milk 2-6 times a day depending on their production and where they are in their lactation. This information is all stored in the Astronaut’s computer, which provides Joe with the data he needs to evaluate and manage each cow.

“If the cow comes into the robot too early, it will just kick her out,” says Joe. “The computer knows if it has just milked and will refuse cows that aren’t ready.”

Robotic milking has required some management changes. “It’s important to maintain a calm atmosphere in the barn,” says Joe, who points out that he now administers all shots in the stalls rather than locking the cows up. “The key is to make sure no negative things happen to the cow in the robot and the cow comes to trust it,” he notes.

Special attention also is paid to maintaining good foot and leg health when milking robotically. “Our hoof trimmer comes out every four weeks,” says Joe. “We trim before we dry them off and then three months into lactation.”

Dairy nutrition consultant Jeff Thorpe and sales nutritionist Doug Sawatzke team up to provide H&JJ Johnson Dairy with expert nutrition advice and high-quality feeds from Munson Lakes Nutrition. “They do all the ration work for both farms,” says Joe. “Jeff had experience with a few herds going to robotic milking, and he knew right away what had to be done.”

“We pride ourselves on making ration changes quickly,” says Jeff. “That’s why having Doug and me as a team works well.”

Stearns Vets told Joe that H&JJ’s transition to robotic milking was the fastest they had seen. “They complimented us on how the bags looked and not having to sell too many cows because the bags were too low or too wide,” says Joe. “Overall, we just have a healthy herd.”

Joe has set a 90-lb tank average as his goal. “Once the cows are used to the robot, we’ll look at the ration and start to put a heavier challenge on them,” he states.

“The Lely software allows us to play with the ration,” adds Jeff. “We can add a couple pounds of grain on the top end and watch the production response. If we get what we want, we’ll keep going, and if we don’t, we’ll make other adjustments.”
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