DECLO — The cows at Heglar Creek Dairy live indoors and receive constant care, though the facility is sparsely staffed at any given time.
Heglar Creek, which now milks 720 cows, opened in December of 2018 and is designed to be operated with less than half the usual labor force thanks to assistance from robots. The robots also identify sick animals and issue medical notations for the staff veterinarian. Sick cows are automatically directed into a special holding pen.
Twelve of 18 planned robots are already operational, each capable of milking 60 cows three times per day on average. Once the equipment is fully installed, it will have the capacity for milking 1,080 cows.
Heglar Creek is one of roughly a half dozen robotic dairies that have opened in the state since the first facility went live in Elba in 2015. The partners in the new, high-tech operation have already discovered there are some areas in which people can't compare with machines.
In addition to the labor savings, Todd Webb, who runs the dairy with his two brothers and one neighbor, estimates Heglar Creek also benefits from 15 to 20 percent fewer culls, 5 to 8 percent better pregnancy rates and at least a 20 percent improvement in productivity.
"I think we're feeling pretty good about it," Webb said. "We're in a world where everything is changing and efficiency is key to being able to stay in production, and that is what the robotics is all about."
The facility's ventilation, humidity and temperature automatically adjust to optimal levels, keeping the cows comfortable during the extreme heat of summer and chill of winter. About 90 massive ceiling fans pull fresh air into the building.
Robots push feed back toward pens, making it accessible after the cows push much of the pile beyond their reach while feeding. Robotic systems routinely scrape manure and separate the solids for composting. Water is automatically flushed through pens at regular intervals to clean them.
Cows all wear a radio-frequency ID collar, logging details about eating habits, activity, rumination and visits to the robot.
"It's like a Fitbit for cows," Webb said.
The system also records information such as whether or not a cow is pregnant, the calf's due date, lactation cycle and feeding history and adjusts rations accordingly. A network of small discs moves feed through a system of 2-inch tubes.
"(The system) will build an individual table for each cow, and as she increases in milk, it will give her more feed. As she decreases in milk, it will give her less feed," said Kelby Nelson, manager of Heyburn-based Snake River Robotics, which services and installs Lely brand dairy robots.
Nelson also designed the layout of Heglar Creek.
Cows' udders are laser scanned for composition. When a cow enters the automated milking station, a robotic arm brushes the teats to clean them and stimulate milk. A laser locates the teats, and milking equipment attaches to them.
"The robot will continue to learn," Nelson said.
When a cow enters a robotic milking unit, the system can monitor for about 100 different parameters regarding the health of the animal and the quality of the milk. For example, if the cow has mastitis and has traces of blood in its milk — unrecognizable to the naked eye — an infrared scanner will detect the problem and dump the milk down a drain.
Typically, the machine opens a gate to return the cow to the general herd once milking is finished. A separate gate is opened for sick animals, diverting them into the medical pen.
"The robot is a great management tool. It can sort my cows. It can tell me when it impregnate, when a cow might need to be culled and when she's sick," Nelson said.
Nelson believes the comfortable climate, the ability to milk cows more often and reduced stress on the animals leads to a sizable increase in production.
Webb has also noticed that the reduction in injuries and immediate attention to the medical needs of cows has significantly reduced culls.
Webb believes he's achieved even greater efficiencies because he operates a conventional dairy across the street from Heglar Creek. It saves on staffing, as crews from the conventional dairy can also tend to the robotic dairy. Furthermore, cows that don't train well to the machines or don't have appropriate udder composition can be moved to the conventional dairy.
"I think they actually marry together quite well," Webb said, of running both a conventional and robotic dairy.
Webb said the robots, which have been used for several years in other countries, have proven to have at least a 20-year life expectancy. Components must be replaced periodically, but Webb said some dairy owners have found old machinery can perform better than new, thanks to periodic software updates.