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Home > Stories > SPECIAL REPORT PART 3: Take a tour of a $12 million robotic dairy in South Dakota

SPECIAL REPORT PART 3: Take a tour of a $12 million robotic dairy in South Dakota

The Drumgoon Dairy in Lake Norden, S.D., is one of only a handful of dairies in the state to use a fully robotic milking system. Here are some basics on the operation run by Rodney Elliott, a native of Northern Ireland who has run one of South Dakota’s fastest growing, most advanced and most successful dairy operations since 2006.

— Robotic milking began at Drumgoon in late January 2021, and eventually will include 20 robotic milking machines and cost a total of $12 million.

— Cows are trained to move on their own through a large rectangular pen outfitted with a series of one-way gates separating areas where they are fed, watered and rested before entering the gated “box” where milking takes place.

—  Inside the milking “box,” a robotic arm outfitted with a high-definition camera identifies and cleans each cow’s teats, hooks up milking suction cups, collects the milk, then cleans the cow’s teats and the camera before the next cow arrives.

— Benefits of the system include reduction of personnel costs, greater cleanliness and animal comfort, improved milk production of each cow and the herd as a whole, and a computer system that identifies and tracks each cow and monitors the entire system.

VIDEO: DAIRY OPERATOR RODNEY ELLIOTT EXPLAINS BASICS OF ROBOTIC MILKING

Drumgoon Dairy operator Rodney Elliott was hesitant to invest in robotic milking but changed his mind after the Swedish manufacturing company DeLaval sent him on trips to Chile and Canada to see the robotics up close.

IT ALL STARTS HERE … WITH COWS ON FEED

The cows start the entire process by consuming as much feed and water as they wish before walking through one-way gates to the next stop in the process.

Cows eat corn silage and alfalfa hay presented to them along one side of the rectangular pen that is about the length of a football field.
The process seeks to keep cows comfortable throughout the milking operation, including during feeding time.
Cows are affixed with a monitor similar to a human Fitbit device that tracks their movements and, among other data collected, can indicate when a cow is ready to breed.
Drumgoon Dairy has the capacity to hold 70,000 tons of silage in this large pile at the farm. The dairy grows some of its own feed but buys most of its corn, alfalfa and soybeans from nearby farms.

AFTER FEEDING, COWS MOVE AROUND THE RECTANGLE TO A BEDDING AREA TO REST

Once they eat and drink to fullness, the cows make their way to the other side of the rectangular pen and bed down in sand, where they begin to form more milk. Cows can also scratch any itches by standing next to an automated twirling brush.

 

Cows lie side by side in the sand where they sleep and make milk within their bodies.
The sand keeps cows comfortable and cool as they rest. Waste products fall into the trough outside and below the sands.
A vertical rotating brush provides cows relief from itches and helps keep them clean.

NOW READY FOR MILKING, COWS QUEUE UP AND AWAIT THEIR TURN TO ENTER THE MILKING “BOX”

After resting and producing milk, cows make their way forward to the end of the rectangle where the milking “box” is located. Cows are lured with a small bit of food to fully enter the box and stand (mostly) still as the robotic milking machine takes over the process.

 

Cows on the right await their turn, or "perch" before walking forward one-by-one to be milked in the "box" at left that is surrounded by metal gates with the other side exposed to the robotic milking machines.
Now full of milk, cows are eager to undergo the milking process, and walk into the "box" where the robotics do the work. Here, a cow can be seen undergoing milking within the "box" area. About 95% of cows easily learn the steps in the milking process and gladly comply; a handful of cows are too stubborn for robotic milking and must be milked in the traditional way.

VIDEO: ROBOTIC MILKING MACHINE BEGINS MILKING PROCESS

Dairy operator Rodney Elliott’s voice can be heard on the video.

The first segment shows the robotic arm equipped with a high-definition camera using air and water to clean teats before milking.

The second segment shows the robotic arm attaching a milking cup and hose that carries the milk to a tank within the milking machine.

The final segment shows a gate opening and allowing a freshly milked cow to exit and head to a feeding area, making room for the next cow to enter the milking chamber.

VIDEO: ROBOTIC MILKING MACHINE ENDS PROCESS, PREPARES NEXT COW FOR MILKING

Dairy operator Rodney Elliott explains the end of the process of milking a cow in the “box,” which takes about five or six minutes. When finished, the milking machine retracts the cups into the machine, where they are washed.

Then, the robot arm applies disinfectant before the gate opens and the cow exits. As the next cow enters, the robotic camera cleans itself before cleaning the teats of the next cow.

VIDEO: FARMER EXPLAINS MILK MACHINE COMPUTER

Dairy operator Rodney Elliott explains some functions of the monitor that captures and displays data about each cow and its teats. The robotics are contained within a small chamber between two milking “boxes” where a farmer can walk in, watch the process and check the machinery and computer to monitor progress.

A computer screen at each milking station provides data about the ongoing milking process and production of each teat and also the history of each cow being milked.
Elliott holds his cell phone, which contains an application that provides him with real-time information on the ongoing milking process and can alert him if there is a breakdown or technical problem.
Elliott displays some of the machinery that collects the milk from dairy cows. With a chuckle, Elliott remarks: "What could possibly go wrong in here?"
Elliott stands next to two 8,000-gallon milk tanks that store the milk collected by the robotic milking machines.
A computer screen displays the amount and quality-control data about milk that is collected by the robotic milking machines. The milk will eventually be loaded onto trucks that take it to cheese plants in the area.
Water use in the robotic system is done through a state permit and a series of pipes and control mechanisms.
Elliott stands in a small office connected to the robotic operation where all data and processes can be monitored at one time.

COWS FINISH MILKING, EXIT MILKING “BOX” AND MOVE BACK TO FEEDING AREA

After robotic milking ends, a gate opens and the cows walk forward and out of the  milking “box.” They follow a series of fences around the oval pen that lead them back to the feeding area to restart the process that occurs up to three times daily for each cow.

When the robots end the milking process, a gate in front of the cow opens and the cow walks out of the "box" and rounds a corner to return to the feeding area. Cows walk through a vat of solution that cleans their hooves after milking.
After a few trips through the milking process, the vast majority of cows learn the "guided flow" process and willingly make their way from feeding to resting to milking. "Nobody pushes them through it; they make their way on their own," Elliott said.
A series of scraper devices rotate along the floor of the robotic milking operation to collect and remove wastes from the areas where cows are feeding, sleeping and milking. Wastes are held in a clay-lined, earthen pit before being spread as fertilizer on area fields each fall.

MORE ROBOTICS UNDER CONSTRUCTION AT DRUMGOON DAIRY

The first few robotic milking machines became operational at Drumgoon Dairy in January 2021; farm operator Rodney Elliott said the farm will eventually have 20 robotic milking machines, each handling about 75 cows. So far, robotically milked cows have given about 83 pounds per day, a marked improvement over traditional milking methods.

 

Drumgoon Dairy is one of three South Dakota operations to use fully robotic milking operations; several more robotic milking stations are under construction at Drumgoon.
Several miles of wire is needed to outfit the robotic milking operation.
As with most concentrated animal feeding operations, large fans in the robotic milking barn at Drumgoon Dairy keep air moving at the proper temperature to keep animals safe and productive.
The barns that hold the robotics are designed with temperature and lighting controls in mind.
The end of the process: Milk from the robotic dairy is moved into dairy trucks that will carry it to the Agropur cheese plant in nearby Lake Norden. Other milk from the farm is shipped to the Valley Queen Cheese plant in Milbank.

— Photos, videos and text by Bart Pfankuch, South Dakota News Watch

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About Bart Pfankuch

Bart Pfankuch, Rapid City, S.D., is the content director for South Dakota News Watch. A Wisconsin native, he is a former editor of the Rapid City Journal and also worked at newspapers in Florida. Bart has spent more than 30 years as a reporter, editor and writing coach.