Patrik Johansson is a fifth generation farmer who together with his wife Elin and six employees runs Torp Farm in Månstad, Sweden. The farm has three main activities: dairy, beef and contract work. In 2008 they switched over to a more automatic operation, by installing four milking robots, and a fully automated feeding system, including calf feeders. They also use automatic climate controls in the barn to ensure that their cows have optimal conditions.
Before going automatic in 2008 they milked 70 cows in a tied-up stall, and today 270 cows milk themselves in the four AMS stations. Around 30 cows, that are sick or have special needs, are milked in the old barn.
They produce 2100 kg per VMS per day. Their cows produce on average 31-32 kg/day, with an average of 2.4 milkings/day per cow. SCC is 172 000 on average in a year. A SCC below 200 000 results in a 2% higher milk price. The minimum milk price needed to break even is 2,70 SEK (0.41 US$, 0.31 Euro), and right now the price is 2,83 (0.43 US$, 0.33 Euro). The high cost of concentrate is a problem, and Elin says that they are very close to the lowest now.
“Next year will probably be better”, she says with a smile. “We just try to pay our bills and wait for a price increase. But we are not making any money on our cows right now,” she adds on a more serious note.
Torp farm will produce 11 000 ECM milk this year, and the aim for next year is 10 200, same as last year. Fat content is 4,3 and protein 3,5.
They have not had any problems in introducing the heifers to the robots. They make sure to train them, so two weeks before calving they start practicing with the heifers in the robots and the first five days of milking they help them.
They use a Feed First system, with a lot of gates. They really believe in this system, and Elin says it gives her control. There is a vet box where they do inseminations and pregnancy tests.
The barn is divided in two parts, equal in size except for a dry cow area added to one side. There are weather stations on the roof and the walls go up and down, according to what is needed to keep a good climate in the barn. The climate control system takes care of everything. They looked at different barns during the planning, and visited farms in Denmark and Sweden. One of the farms was wide and not very long, and the air and circulation was quite bad, so they decided to think differently and made the barn 160 m long and 20 m wide (525 feet long and 65 feet wide) so fresh air could circulate easily. They use chimneys, and Elin says this works better than open roofs, since snow would fall in and on to the feeding table in the wintertime.
Their biggest health problem is mastitis, but they have only less than one cow per week in treatment. Another problem occurring during summer is that the cows drink bad water out in the fields after rain fall, and get e-coli the next day.
They use weekly foot baths and trim the hooves every 6 weeks on 60-70 cows, they trim all the cows twice per year and the problem cows 4-5 times per year. They have a VIP area on each side of the barn, where they can check cows after calving to see if they have fever.
At Torp farm they grow corn and grass, and they are self sufficient on grass. They do three cuts, 1st week in June, then six weeks later, and then at the end of August. Concentrate is their largest cost and they feed on average 7 kg concentrate per cow/ day. Each cow is fed 25 kg on the feeding table and 1 kg of concentrate in the robot. They feed every hour, 24 times a day, with an automatic feed wagon serving four feed tables. In summer they make several mixes, to prevent feed from going bad. They feed 1st and 3rd cut of grass, baked hop, straw, minerals, salt, protein. Same ration all day.
When they were looking for a feeding system for the new barn, Elin's most important requirement was that it should be easy to manage, and that the feeding wagon wouldn’t get stuck. She did not want to be alone in the barn and have to deal with a heavy feed wagon getting stuck. Patrik’s main requirement was that it had to be easy to load; that anyone could fill up once a day and then leave.
They were inspired by the feed kitchen they saw when they visited a farm in Denmark, and immediately thought that they wanted one too. So they chose the Optimat system.
The system feeds both barns, the new one and the old barn where the heifers are housed. They have reduced feed spill by 5%, and the 2 hours that were spent feeding 70 cows is now reduced to 30 minutes to feed 350 cows. Cleaning feed tables takes one hour.
A journalist that was coming to visit had expressed doubts in that the feeding took only 30 minutes. Could that really be possible? The journalist wanted to see. This made Patrik a bit nervous, and he started wondering, now that he was going to be clocked, if it really did take only 30 minutes? But Elin says that he came back smiling afterwards, saying that it had taken him 28 minutes.
The herd consists of 50’% Swedish red and 50% Holstein. They try to keep the breeds separate but if a cow is not pregnant after third insemination they change to a different colour, and if that doesn’t help they put the cow with a bull. When they choose bulls they look at the legs. Cows need good legs in a robotic system; if the cows can’t walk they won’t be milked.
They average on 1.8 inseminations per cow. Calving interval is 12.6 months, and average age at first calving is 26 months. There is a vet box next to the robots, where cows in need for care or pregnancy checks get sorted out. They do all this themselves, with the help of activity meters. The herd is 3-11 years old. They don’t look specifically at number of lactations. As long as the cows are healthy and milking well, they stay in production.
At 14 months the heifers are sent off to another farm, where they stay until they are pregnant, and then they come back. They don’t keep bulls at the farm; they believe it is too dangerous for the employees.
When asked about the differences between the red cows and the black cows, Elin says that the red cows are more stubborn than the black ones, some of the red ones never stop kicking in the robots. They are also tougher and walk better. A red cow will still be eating even if she has a fever of 40 degrees Celsius.
“A black cow with a bad foot will lie down and wait to die!” Elin says with a laugh.
But she has no preferences; of her two favorite cows one is red and the other is black. She is very proud of one of their cows, which has produced 120 tonnes of milk and that has not been sick a day of her life.
The pregnant cow goes to a single box two days before calving and the calf stays 1-2 days with the cow. The calves are kept one week in separate calf boxes and then they are put in groups of 12 in the calf stable. They have eight of these boxes and an automatic calf feeder in each.
The calves are given milk for 75 days, at most 8 liters per day (milk powder). At one week of age, the calves get access to concentrate. They used to have hutches, and feed the calves with buckets, but this was very heavy work, especially in winter when they had to heat the milk. So they invested in an automatic calf feeder.
They have divided the work so that Elin is responsible for the cows and Patrik for the fields and the machinery. Since the farm has a high level of automation their employees do not have to be strong but they need to have a good cow eye. They are not milking anymore, the robots take care of that, but they are checking on the cows. Working conditions are good at the farm. They have no problems in retaining employees, they never leave, says Elin.
Elin starts every morning with checking the computer. After that she goes into the barn with paper and pen and a thermometer in hand. There are some cows that will give her company around the barn and walk with her. Some cows she never sees; they don’t like people, so they avoid her.
After the morning rounds, when she also cleans the cow beds, she checks the computer again.
They get alarms from the robots twice a week when something needs to be checked, and stop alarms are less frequent, maybe once a week. They do regular checks and maintenance of the robots.
They used to be three people plus Elin and Patrik working in the barn with 70 cows. Now they are three employees plus Elin taking care of 350 cows. In total there are six employees, but if they didn’t have the machine park for the contract work, they would only need two or three employees. The contract work consists of most services needed on a farm, but also with gravelling roads. All drivers practice eco-driving, which decreases the fuel usage and also reduces the carbon dioxide emission.
They invested 30 million SEK in the new barn and they received 1.8 million SEK in support from the EU, for agricultural development.
Automation and lifestyle
How has automation changed their lives?
First of all, it made it possible for them to expand the herd.
“We are getting fatter and fatter”, Elin says laughing, suggesting that work is not nearly as hard anymore and they are consequently not as fit as they used to be.
“It is a different way of life, there is a lot of freedom. We used to have to load the feed wagon 3-4 times a day and milk the cows seven days a week. Now the cows milk themselves and the calves are automatically fed. We have cameras watching. There are no set times any more, more flexibility. We had a four day vacation recently, and that was the first time in a long time,” says Elin.
“So, it is a better quality of life, but we gain weight!”
When asked what the farm will look like ten years from now, Elin says that the size the farm has right now is enough for her brain. Patrik says that he would like to install 4 more VMS. Maybe their sons Olle, 4 years and Nils, 4 months, can make changes in the future.