ABOVE: Three generations: Mike, Jim and George Kepple, of Kepple Farms, New Alexandria, Pa. (Scroll down to see more photos from the farm.)
NEW ALEXANDRIA, Pa. — All three Kepple generations knew it. Their old double-eight herringbone milking parlor was shot. If they were going to keep milking, they needed to replace that setup.
George Kepple had installed the parlor on their Westmoreland County farm in 1968, and he and his son, Jim, had updated it many times over the years to handle their herd of now-175 Holsteins. But the old lady was rusted and deteriorating. It was time, especially now that Jim’s son, Mike — the farm’s fifth generation — had joined the operation.
Twenty-year-old Mike started checking out various parlors online, and while surfing the DeLaval website, he saw it.
A “voluntary milking system.” A robotic milker.
“And then that was it,” he says.
Well, not exactly.
“I thought he was crazy,” said his dad. “I thought I’d humor him a little while.”
But it started to make sense to Jim, too. Then George came around. And on May 30, 2011, they ran their first group of cows through the three individual milking stations, to be milked by a robotic arm guided by the little red dot of the laser eye.
A year later, the family wouldn’t trade “George,” “Sue” and “Mike” — their nicknames for the robotic units — for anything.
For one thing, Jim said, “you have more time, and it definitely takes some stress off.”
The Kepples own approximately 240 acres and rent another 300, raising about 300 acres of high moisture corn, 100 acres of soybeans and another 150 in hay.
George farmed with his brother and his two sons until about 10 years ago, when George and Jim bought them out. Since then, George’s wife, Sue, and Jim’s wife, Michelle, milked alongside their husbands, joined by Jim and Michelle’s children — Kristie, Stacey and Mike — alternating 2 a.m. milking shifts every other day.
And to a person, they say the robotic milkers gave them their life back.
“We can sleep now, basically,” jokes Michelle, who also keeps the farm’s records. “We can go to the kids’ functions.”
“You can work with the cows around your schedule,” added Jim. “The cows don’t control us as much now.”
George Kepple said one of the key factors in making the investment was that the farm had no debt.
“You can’t overextend yourself,” he added. “We figured out how we were going to pay for it before we put it in.”
George, who’s 69, admits it’s probably not an investment he would’ve made on his own at his age, “but Mike’s the young blood.”
After traveling to several farms to see various milking systems, including robotic milkers, the Kepples made the decision to go with the DeLaval VMS system, swayed in large part because of their previous work with the local dealer, Dennis Graham, of Graham Dairy Supply in Greensburg, Pa. And to be able to sell and service the system, Graham and two of his employees had to travel to Sweden for training.
Still, George admits he was as skeptical as the next guy. “How’s the flow going to work,” he worried. “Are they going to work?”
“I’m probably the same as most people. I was amazed to see it,” he added. “And I’m still amazed. I’ll go out and just watch them!”
One of the things that lowered their investment was using their existing barn, rather than building a whole new setup.
The milking string is housed in an older 240-foot freestall barn, with a TMR feed bunk down the center. Some stalls on one side of the bunk were removed, and one-way gates on either end of the barn control entry into the open side that now serves as a waiting area for the three milking units.
The Kepples rewired and replumbed a section of the barn, and bumped out a new 16-by-50 addition that holds the three stainless steel milking units.
From the waiting area, where they also have access to the central feed bunk, cows can enter the milking stations at will, although the computer reads each cow’s identification and may deny her entry into the station if it’s not been long enough since her last milking. That “permission” varies depending on stage of lactation and each cow’s individual production, and the Kepples can program different parameters for each cow.
In fact, said Jim Kepple, there’s roughly 100 parameters to set, right down to how dry you want to milk each quarter.
After a cow leaves the unit, the station is automatically hosed (Sue Kepple said some cows hear that water flush and, like a Pavlovian response, push toward the entry gate) and other sanitation steps taken. When a cow enters, a feed bar slides in front of her, the “poop chute” adjusts in the rear, and guided by a laser “eye,” a quiet, hydraulic arm washes, and dries each teat individually, then places milkers on each teat, gathers up the hoses so the cow doesn’t step on them, and starts milking.
Each quarter is milked individually, and milkers are taken off when each quarter tapers its production, and automatically disinfects each teat. When the units come off and the exit gate opens, the cow leaves. If she’s a little slow, air blowers kick on above her, which usually annoys the cow enough to leave.
Three times during a 24-hour cycle, the system shuts itself down to flush all the lines. A backup generator provides power if the electric goes out.
If a cow never enters to be milked, the number is flagged in the computer (which is also synched to Mike Kepple’s iPhone) and the Kepples track her down and move her through the unit. “They’re usually the same cows,” George said.
“If there are any problems, the robot calls you on your cell phone. I said ‘that robot’s not getting my cell number!'”
Instead, the alerts go to Jim and Mike, who is savvy with all things smartphone- and computer-related.
Last summer, while Mike was on vacation, the units had to be reset after a power surge, and one of their milking units wouldn’t restart.
He took a frantic call from his grandpa, hung up, and then loaded a website on his iPhone, and within minutes he had the No. 3 milker up and running again.
You can also create “flags” on certain cows, so when she comes into the unit, you receive an alert and can come check her, or you can even put a “trap” on a cow, preventing her from leaving the unit until you arrive.
If there’s a cow that’s being treated, her milk is diverted to a dumping station.
Their milk hauler picks up the milk from their 2,000-gallon tank every day, and forces a half-hour to 45-minute halt in the milking, which is why the Kepples are considering adding a second bulk tank. They ship their milk to Colteryahn Dairy in Pittsburgh.
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As any dairyman who’s built a new barn or parlor knows, cows are creatures of habit and training them to a new system is, well, challenging.
“The first three weeks were hell, and that’s putting it mildly,” admitted George Kepple.
They had to push each cow through a unit (and had to fire up the old milking parlor just to keep caught up the first few days), and by the time they finished, it was time to push them through all over again.
“We slept out there,” said Sue Kepple of the ordeal.
Setting up the gate timing and other individual parameters was also a work in progress. And troubleshooting problems (a gate problem or a cow flow problem) also had a learning curve. Now, most problems have an easy fix (“somebody left a switch in the wrong position”), but in the beginning, they didn’t know where to start.
The units have many advantages for the Kepples, including the consistency of the milking procedure, and the information the computerized system gives them for breeding, health and production management.
But they’ve also noticed an unexpected plus: The cows are calmer.
“There’s an absolute difference in the demeanor of the cows,” said Sue Kepple.
“They’d much rather be milked by a robot than milked by us,” added Jim.
Jim said the system may seem high tech or out of reach for a small- or medium-sized dairy, but it made sense for them because the family provided most of the labor, and now they’re freed up to focus on other priorities.
“You have more time, and it definitely takes some stress off.”
And that may be just the ticket for keeping Kepple Farms around for another five generations.