DALTON, Ohio — Over the span of his dairy career, Bob Sprunger has milked cows five different ways at his family’s Wayne County farm.
First, it was buckets, followed by stanchions, then a pipeline system, a dairy parlor, and most recently — robotic milking machines.
The changes were part of the ever-changing technology in the dairy industry, and his family’s desire to stay in dairy farming.
It’s not hard to understand why the Sprungers would want to continue farming — Bob’s family has been farming here since 1839. He has the original deed, and he respects the hard work and challenges his ancestors overcame to start the farm.
And those challenges continue today — like the need to be profitable, the battles with weather, and keeping up with research and technology.
Bob and his wife, Barb Sprunger, installed three robotic milking machines in 2014 as a way of reducing outside labor, and allowing more members of their family to work on the farm.
Their daughter, Amy, is married and their son, Scott, is engaged, but both adult children and Amy’s husband, Mark Ostarchvic, now work full-time on the farm.
Each robot can handle 60 cows, and frees up the need for manual labor. But the robots still need programmed and monitored each day, and when they’re running, the Sprungers are always close by.
Scott and Mark are each in charge of different robots and making sure that they run smoothly.
Getting used to the machines took time for both the cows and the Sprungers. The farm lost some production during the transition, as it had to readjust its feeding program, and program the robots to recognize the differences of each cow.
“Everybody here had to have a whole different mind-set,” Barb Sprunger said. “Everything’s totally different.”
Before robots, the Sprungers were milking three times a day. But the robots generally allow the cows to be milked whenever and however often they want. Some cows, however, go beyond their milking windows, and are known as the “fetch” cows, because the Sprungers have to go fetch them and bring them in.
“You’re not in the barn any less than what you were in the parlor,” Amy said. “You’re probably in the barn more than what you were in the parlor.”
But because the robot handles the manual labor, and can also analyze milk and record important calendar data, the Sprungers can focus on other things when in the barn.
The herd is now back to a 90-plus pound-per-day average, and the feeding program has been adjusted to the new milking schedule.
The Sprungers milk about 155 head of Holsteins and have another 145 head of calves and replacements. The heifers are raised by another producer, and returned to the farm after they’re bred.
The Sprungers farm about 500 acres, and handle most of their own fieldwork. Haymaking is done by a custom operator, because it’s faster and more efficient.
The Sprungers register their cattle under the name Raygor Farms, a name they created after World War II, by merging the names of Bob’s maternal grandfather (Raymond Graber), and Bob’s father, Gordon Sprunger.
Delegating the labor
Barb handles the farm’s book work, Amy does computer work and feeds calves, and the men handle fieldwork and milking. But there’s a lot of overlap, depending on the season and what needs done.
Amy’s husband, Mark, did not grow up on a farm — although he’s learned a lot the past couple years. He had previously worked as an assembler for the General Motors plant in Lordstown, for 11 years.
After he was laid off, he began helping do small things on the farm — like raking hay and helping Scott prepare show cattle. Mark and Amy have a three-year-old daughter, Avery, and working on the farm lets them spend more time together.
“It grew into something I like to do,” Mark said. “I don’t know everything about it and I probably never will, but I’m doing good — I get to see my wife every day, my daughter every day.”
Amy said returning to the farm was important to her, partly because she wanted her daughter to experience the same farm upbringing she once enjoyed.
“After having her, I really wanted to be here,” Amy said. “I want her to grow up here and be able to spend more time with her here.”
A big part of growing up on the farm for Amy and her brother meant showing dairy cattle through 4-H. The Sprungers still show in senior shows, and do quite well.
Last year was arguably their best ever. They took grand champion female at the Wayne County Fair, won the District 3 Holstein Show, the Northeast Ohio District Show, and took fourth at state, in the 4-year-old class.
Although the cows are doing their job — and very well — one thing the cows can’t correct is the low price of milk. The Sprungers said low prices have been the norm for the past couple years, and have forced them to cut back as much as they can.
They can’t cut much more, or they’ll start losing production. Like other dairy farmers, the Sprungers are hopeful the market will soon trend upward, and that with ongoing trade negotiations, demand will increase.
“It’s one (market) extreme to the other — there’s no in-between,” Amy said.
The Sprungers don’t own or rent enough ground to grow their herd much beyond its current size, but they keep improving what they have. Buying and renting ground in Wayne County remains costly, and they also don’t want to grow to the point that they have to manage people more than cows.
The Sprungers are active supporters of the dairy industry at large, and Bob is a delegate on the Ohio Holstein Association board, and also is on the American Dairy Association Mideast board of directors.
In 2010, they hosted the annual Twilight Dairy Tour, which brought around 2,000 people to the farm. The Sprungers’ main focus is running a dairy farm, but they’re also willing to speak up for their industry.
“If you have questions, ask a farmer,” Barb said. “Don’t go to the Internet or Facebook — you need to ask a farmer and they’ll tell you the truth.”
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