By Linda Schmid

The Jeffana Holstein Family Farm is run by Jeff and Diana Henschel, who purchased the farm in the ’90s and raised their children there, and Bucky Henschel, their son. Initially they had 60 cows and no help, so Jeff was doing the milking and Diana helped with the fieldwork. It was a family affair so the kids would be out in the barn riding up and down on bikes and playing with toys.

Lely Robots

Megan Henschel, Bucky’s wife, says that the farm continued  in a similar vein until about five years ago when they decided to automate. It’s a big change and Megan has this advice for those considering automating their farms: Plan, plan, plan.  

When the Henschels were in their planning stage, they visited farm after farm, touring, asking their owners what they liked and disliked about their automation and layouts and making notes of what they thought they might like for their own place. 

They decided that the most important considerations for them were: air flow, cow comfort, and having what they call a “back area” for cows that are sick or new to robotic milking. The back area can be a clean space where they could easily access and monitor these cows without having to walk through the main barn and track manure into the space. 

They achieved these goals on the farm. Automation, in the form of the robots and SCR collars, provides data about particular cows for injections, and inspections when they show signs of illness. Then it does the “fetching” of those cows by herding them through gates that open and close, ushering them into the back area.

Both healthy ventilation and cow comfort are addressed, in part, by 28 fans that turn on and off automatically according to the temperature. There are 18 cupolas and curtains that block energy transfer based on the temperature. At about  80-85 degrees, the curtains automatically close and all the fans come on. When the fans are on, the best air flow is down the center where the feed alleys are usually located, but in the Jeffana Barn, they placed them around the outside of the barn so the center is reserved for the cows to have a cool space.

The Henschels decided on robotic milking rather than a parlor system, permitting cows to be milked at will. They roam the barn as they please, lay down if they want to, eat when they are hungry, and when they are ready to give milk, they go to a robot and the robot latches onto the teats. The good thing about the robotic system that they installed, a set of six Lely robots, is that if one teat is done, that one is released but the milking continues. Cows can even be milked while the milkman is doing his testing and moving milk to the truck for transport. The milkers use the buffer tank at that time.  

Twice a day the lines are cleaned — automatically.

The two alley scrapers activate every two hours to help keep the barn clean, pushing the manure into storage, where at a specified level it is automatically piped to the pit on the other side of the road.  

The systems need power to run, of course, so they have a backup generator that kicks in if the power fails. Another generator handles the fans, and there is a generator for the calf house, too. All of these generators need a place to reside as well.

The farm can now handle more cows (400!)  and fewer people. The 120-tie stall barn, the size of a football field, has been repurposed for calf pens and a maternity ward. 

The best part of the automation is the flexibility it offers to farmers. If they are doing field work, they do not have to stop what they are doing to milk cows, according to Megan. They can finish their work before the rain sets in without jeopardizing the cows. They can go to dinner and not have to rush home to be there for the milking. She is clear that the Jeffana group still do visual inspections, check in on the cows, and make sure everything is going well, but they are no longer tied to an unforgiving timetable.

While many efficiencies and improvements have been instituted into this farm, some things stay the same: Visit the barn when there are calves to feed and you will find kids playing in the aisles…just like the good old days. RB