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16 robotic milkers on Sunrise Dairy

Dairy Star 7/5/2019 addition Jerry Nelson staff writer.

CLEAR LAKE, S.D. – The Andringa family has made some major moves during the past 20 years.
This spring, the Andringas – Sietse and Aafke along with their children, Ytsje, 18, Jan, 16, Aukje, 14, Hessel, 12, Gerrit, 5, and Melle, 3 – made one of those major move when they installed 16 robotic milkers in their main 1,800-cow farm, Sunrise Dairy, near Clear Lake, S.D.
The robots were put in during an eight-week period that began March 5. More than 1,400 of the 1,800 cows at Sunrise Dairy are being milked by robots.
“One of the biggest challenges of switching to robots has been managing our employees,” Andringa said, noting the farm’s employees. “Instead of pushing the cows, we have to learn to let the cows decide when to milk themselves. Another challenge has been balancing the ration. The cows get a pelletized treat while they are being milked in the robot. This meant that we had to go from feeding a TMR to using a partially mixed ration. It’s important to have your nutritionist on board if you’re going to switch to robots.”
Andringa said many larger dairy farms are looking at making the move to robotic milkers.
“We couldn’t have put in the robots unless we could prove to our banker that it pays,” Andringa said. “Our experience at Sunrise West, [our other dairy facility], showed us that milking robots are worth the investment. After we installed the first eight robots, milk production went up 10%. We have seen a 10% reduction in our cull rates and our reproductive efficiency has improved by 10%. But, I think the biggest benefit is the free flow of cows. Each animal gets to decide when she will be milked.”
Labor savings are another benefit for the Andringas.
“Under the old system, we needed one employee for every 100 cows,” Andringa said. “Our goal is to get that down to one employee for every 300 cows. Within the next year, we hope to be averaging 75,000 pounds of milk per day per employee.”
The Andringas have reaped other advantages from their milking robots.
“We do 90% of our heat detection based on cow activity that is reported to us by the robots. This has reduced our repro costs,” Andringa said. “We are looking at adding [somatic cell count] monitors that can check each cow’s SCC a couple of times per week. In the future, we may be able to avoid dry treating some of the cows at dry-off. This will allow us to use fewer medications. At the end of the day, the robots will enable us to provide our consumers with more information and give our consumers a better product.”
Another cutting-edge feature the Andringas have embraced is a system that can track the location of each individual cow. This is made possible with a series of wireless receivers that have been installed on the ceilings throughout the barns.
“If we want to locate a particular cow, all we have to do is enter her ear tag number into our smartphones and we can instantly tell where she is,” Andringa said. “This is especially handy if you need to find a cow that needs to be bred.”
Dairying has always been a part of the Sietse and Aafke’s lives. They grew up a few miles apart on modest dairy farms located in the Friesland region of the Netherlands. Sietse’s parents milked 50 cows while Aafke’s parents owned a 100-cow dairy operation. Sietse and Aafke were wed in April 1999.
In October 1999, Sietse and Aafke, along with Sietse’s brother, Jogchum, and parents, Jan and Aukje, moved to Alberta, Canada and purchased a 90-cow dairy. Over the next four years, they grew the operation to 160 head.
“We didn’t like dealing with the Canadian milk quota system,” Sietse said. “We had to buy quota whenever we wanted to expand.”
In 2003, the Andringa family purchased a 350-cow dairy facility under construction near Clear Lake, S.D. They named their new operation Sunrise Dairy.
“We came to America because we wanted to be able to expand our dairy and make room for other family members,” Andringa said.
The Andringa family’s story is one of continual growth and improvement. By 2005, they had expanded their herd to 650 head. In 2013, they built additional freestall barns and boosted their herd to 1,300 head.
In 2014, an existing dairy located one mile west of Sunrise Dairy came up for sale. The Andringas purchased the dairy and named it Sunrise West.
“We had been looking into robotic milkers for some time,” Andringa said. “In 2016, we remodeled part of Sunrise West to accommodate four robot milkers. We liked how they worked, so the next year we added four more robots.”
The Andringa family marked another major milestone March 26 when Ytsje was crowned the 2019 South Dakota Dairy Princess. The Dairy Princess contest was held in conjunction with the Central Plains Dairy Expo.
“As a dad, you are proud to have your kids interested in the industry that you grew up with,” Andringa said. “We will be happy if any of our kids decide to join the operation. But if none do, that’s fine, too. The best thing you can do for a child is give them a strong work ethic and the best place to do that is on a dairy farm.”
The Andringa family is conscious of how consumers perceive the dairy industry.
“Dairy farming has reduced its carbon footprint by 63% since 1944,” Andringa said. “This is important because companies are going to be judged based on their carbon footprint rating. And, we have to give our consumers what they want. The day will come when we will be dealing with a generation of consumers who trust their smartphones more than they trust Grandma. … We are always looking ahead, and we think that robots are the future. We need to remember yesterday, but we must continue to look toward tomorrow.”