Twilight tour features RMD Dairy’s robotic milking system

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The Dotterer family addresses the crowd at the 2021 Dairy Twilight Tour.
The Dotterer family talks about their dairy farm, RMD Dairy, at the 2021 Dairy Twilight Tour, July 20, in Rittman, Ohio. (Sarah Donaldson photo)

RITTMAN, Ohio — It’s not always easy to find enough people to work on a dairy farm. For RMD Dairy, in Rittman, Ohio, it was especially tricky because they were milking their cows three times a day. So, they decided to try a different approach.

“We decided we kind of wanted to manage equipment more than people,” explained Mark Dotterer, one of farm’s owners. Mark, his brother, Matthew, and their father, Rick Dotterer, are all equal partners in the farm.

The Dotterers began using robotic milkers in January 2018, after spending a few years building a barn that would work with that system. Now, about 450 of the dairy’s 600 cows are milked by eight robots, with the rest still milked in the parlor.

The Dotterers opened their farm to about 2,500 visitors, including more than 60 vendors, for the 2021 Dairy Twilight Tour, July 20, organized by the Wayne-Ashland Dairy Service Unit. The event’s attendance this year set a record.

Family

Matthew and Mark are the third generation on the farm, which their grandfather, Henry Dotterer, started in 1954. Rick grew up on the farm, and he and his brothers worked for their dad there until he retired in 1990 and sold it to them.

Gary Dotterer, one of Rick’s brothers, farmed separately from about 1982 to 1990, then came back until Matthew and one of Gary’s sons graduated in 2008. After that, he farmed separately again, with his sons.

In addition to milking, Matthew, Mark and Rick farm more than 2,000 acres of corn, soybeans, wheat and hay, under Dotterer Brothers, with Gary and his two sons, to feed the cows at both dairy farms. In 2014, Matthew and Mark bought out their other uncle, Bob. Bob continued working for the dairy until the end of 2020.

Mark views the opportunity to buy in as the biggest advantage he and Matthew have had over a lot of people. He credited his grandfather with being a good example of an older farmer who was willing to transition the farm to the next generations. The farm transitions, Mark said, have been pretty seamless.

“You’ve got to work together; you’ve got to figure out what you’re going to do and how you’re going to do it,” Mark said.

Robots

Rick Dotterer said they built the barn with Mark and Matthew in mind, knowing they planned to keep farming into the future. They’ve kept the parlor — it’s already paid for, after all, Mark said. But the bulk of the milking is done by robots, making them one of the 65 robotic dairy farms in Ohio.

The system the Dotterers use allows cows to go to the robot when they want to be milked. If they’re not actually ready to be milked, the robot sends them back out. Otherwise, it feeds them, weighs them and milks them. Since cows can go to the machine whenever they want, they get milked anywhere from one to five times a day.

About 3% of the approximately nine million dairy cows in the U.S. are milked by single box robots like RMD Dairy uses, Tony Stoller, of W.G. Dairy Supply, told visitors to the farm at a dairy summit meeting before the tour.

RMD Dairy hasn’t necessarily seen a huge leap in milk production, since they were already milking three times a day, but they do see a major difference for labor. The system allows RMD Dairy to keep a fairly lean staff, and to be more choosy about who they hire.

Other than the Dotterers, they have three full time employees and eight part time. They rely on W.G. Dairy Supply to help out with maintenance on the robots.

“These robots will work — you just have to figure out how you want to lay it out,” Matthew Dotterer said. “I’m not saying it’s for everybody, but it works for us.”

Learning

The first few days with the six robots they bought in 2018 weren’t easy. They started out with a few too many cows for each robot. It also took some time to get the cows used to the new system.

“The robots worked perfect, the cows learned second best, and we learned third best, and we’re still learning,” Mark Dotterer said.

They added another two robots, these ones used, about a month ago. They stuck with the same type of robots, and that transition went much more smoothly. So far, the used ones work as good as new.

“We kind of figured this was the future, and we’re going to see if we can make it work,” Matthew Dotterer said.

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Reporter Sarah Donaldson is a former 4-Her and a Mount Union graduate from Columbiana County, Ohio. She enjoys playing and writing music, cooking, and storytelling in many forms. She can be reached at 800-837-3419 or sarah@farmanddairy.com.

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