Gingrich Meadows, the farm of the future

LEROY – While the typical dairy farmer spends hours milking their cows each day, Amy Martin leaves that to the robots.

Martin and her parents own Gingrich Meadows, the second farm in the nation to be home to Milking Intelligence One, a robotic milking system that uses one robotic arm to milk cows in four stalls.

“Now instead of cleaning cows and attaching milkers, (my employees) just monitor the computers and monitor the cows,” Martin said. “They can give more attention to the cows that need attention.”

The farm serves as the second test site in the nation for the robotic machine, which was introduced in Europe in 2008 by GEA/Westfalia but will not be officially released in the United States until later this year, Martin said.

“To comply with USDA federal guidelines, they have to tweak things a little bit compared to in Europe,” Martin said. “That’s why we’re a test farm, so that (the manufacturer) can make sure the adjustments they had to make (are up to USDA code).”

Four stalls specifically designed for the robotic operation were installed last month in the farm’s new 66,650 square-foot parlor built down the road from the farm’s other location on 18 Mile Road.

Cows are trained to enter one of four stalls where a sensor recognizes a transponder in the cow’s collar and identifies the animal by number. The collar also keeps track of each cow’s activity level and how often it has been milked.

“When she comes through the first gate, the robot will determine whether she is eligible to be milked,” Martin said. “If it’s

only been an hour, (the robot) is not going to let her in to get milked.”

With the use of a 3-D direct camera system, the machine then identifies the location of the cow’s teats, and a robotic arm attaches four suction devices to the cow.

The MI One system logs milking data and sends information to a computer system in Martin’s office, notifying her which cows have not been milked that day. Martin or an employee will then find the cow and lead it into the stall.

“We’re still into the phase where we have to go find some (cows), but every day that gets less and less,” Martin said. “Eventually we’ll only have just a couple we have to go and find.”

If a problem arises during the milking operation, the system will place a call to Martin’s cell phone and an automated voice will inform her about the issue.

Gingrich Meadows was established in 1983 by Larry and Elaine Gingrich, Martin’s parents, who still help out on the farm. Though it is among the youngest dairy farms in the county, the 1,200-acre farm is easily the most technologically advanced.

“When we first started out, I used to milk the cows, but that’s when we only had 70,” Elaine said. “Now, if everything goes as planned, the barn will pretty much function with no one there.”

Before the robotic operation came to the farm, five full-time workers were employed to complete the milking of the farm’s more than 200 cows daily. Along with the five non-family workers, Shawn Gingrich, Martin’s brother, and his sons Jesse, Cole and Brock, as well as Martin’s sons Brandon and Eric work on the farm too.

Many factors went in to the family’s decision to purchase the robots, Martin said.

“We had a lot of cows and it was time to expand and interest rates are low. So we started looking and if you compare (the price of) robots to installing a new parlor, it’s a similar price.”

Now, the five workers were cut down to two part-time workers, who can easily complete the job of monitoring the

computer and keeping the stalls clean.

In July, an additional four robotic milking stalls will be installed in the parlor. Each stall can milk up to 60 cows daily, and in the fall Martin hopes to house 450 cows in the parlor and work up to housing a maximum of 600 animals in the large barn.

Martin can view all of the cows from her office, which sits a level above the barn floor and has a large bay window overlooking the animals.

“I love going up in Amy’s office, I call it the ‘crows nest,’ and watching the cows go in (the robotic stalls) and do their thing,” Elaine said.

And when visitors come to the farm, they are invited to the “crows nest” as well. For 20 years, Gingrich Meadows has hosted Rural Education Day in conjunction with Michigan State University Extension and the Osceola County Farm Bureau. Area fourth graders are invited to receive a hands-on education about the farming operation outside a traditional classroom.

A long hallway with glass windows in the parlor makes the robotic operation easily visible to those ready for a lesson in both technology and agriculture.

“We have so many people who stop in here. We have the county park right across the road from the other farm and we get a lot of tourists,” Martin said. “This way people can view it and not be down where the cows are.”

Martin said interest in the robotic milking systems is growing. She said Michigan farmers have shown interest and she sees the robotic dairy business expanding in the future.

“It does work very well and it’s better for the cow. And labor is an issue,” she said. “Finding quality people to work is a challenge.”

Gingrich Meadows will invite the public to the farm Aug. 25 for Breakfast on the Farm sponsored by MSU Extension. Community members can view the operation and enjoy breakfast. Free tickets will be available at various locations, including the MSU Extension office, in mid-July. More than 1,000 individuals are expected at the event.

For more information about the farm and additional photos of the machinery, add Gingrich Meadows Dairy as a friend on Facebook.