As part of Farm to School Month, we partnered with Midwest Dairy to visit farms across Minnesota that have a connection to their school providing local food. During this visit, we were headed to Central Minnesota, where we have the Ahlgren family, Sarah and Rick. Darwin, Minnesota, is home to the largest ball of twine, and is also the community where Ahlgren Dairy calls home.
Meet dairy farmers Rick and Sarah Ahlgren who recently invested in their farm to add robotic technology. During the tour, learn how the new technology helps their family care for the cows, the environment, and the community to produce a safe, sustainable and nutritious product.
Ahlgren Dairy Farm is a several generation, small farm. They are a family farm with 160 cows right now milking. They raise their replacement heifers from calf to cow. Most of the cows on the farm is Holsteins, a very common breed found on dairy farms. The milk from the Ahlgren’s farm goes to cheese production.
The facility that is shown in the virtual field trip was recently built with a design plan for the cows. With the upgrade of the building, they added in robotics and increased cow comfort. There are three robots that clean the barn, similar to a Roomba in your house vacuums the dirt, these robots vacuum up the manure and dump it into the pit.
How can you tell if a cow is happy and comfortable?
Their posture shows happiness. As Rick and Sarah stood in the pen with the cows, you’ll see that the cows are very friendly and curious. The cows enjoy hanging out next to them with little to no fear. You want to make sure to walk into the pen very slow and calm to make sure you do not scare them.
If a cow is laying down and chewing her cud, the food inside of her mouth, this means she is very healthy and happy. In their barn, they have water beds for cow comfort. The water helps spread her weight out evenly. Cow comfort is why we keep our milking herd inside the barn all year around. Similar to why we use bug spray and heating/air conditioning, cows have a very calm, easy going life when they have a consistent temperature without bugs or diseases.
The cows are free choice to come to the milking unit when they want. They enter from the back and they eat a tasty treat within the milking station. The more the cow is producing the more feed the cow gets to ensure that she gets the nutrition she needs. The robotic milking unit knows which cow is which based on the cameras up above the robot that track the cows collars. Similar to a Fitbit, the collar tracks their overall health, how much they are eating, laying down, who is coming into the robot and is programed to ensure that she has the right amount of feed for her body.
On average a cow produces about 10 gallons of milk a day. This is about 160 student milk cartons each day from each cow!
The Ahlgren Dairy Farm also has a feeding robot, a Vector, which gives cows most of their feed. It distributes feed around the perimeter of the entire barn. This provides free choice feed. The food they eat is basically like a cow salad that is developed by a nutritionist. The Vector has a laser on it that measures the amount of feed still available to the cows while it goes around the barn. This ensure that it only mixes enough feed that there is no waste and always fresh feed available.