Young couple builds Todd County’s first robotic dairy farm

Todd County couple Amanda and Derek Zigan stand with their children (from left): Jax, Chloe and Jovi next to one of their two new Lely Astronaut A-4 milking robots. The robots and a new barn will award them some time to spend with their children and will provide additional assets to the farm that will be passed along to them.

By Kerry Drager, Correspondent

Technology is an excellent tool for the agricultural industry. The advancements in technology in recent years have made many farming practices more efficient and productive. On June 24, individuals interested in the new technology available to the dairy industry are invited to take a tour of Todd County’s first robotic dairy farm at Zigan Dairy in Long Prairie.

Derek and Amanda Zigan knew that their farm needed some updating, but they also wanted to find a way to spend more time with their three children. The young couple looked into their options and robotic milking became their goal.

Robotics free up time spent milking so that farmers can concentrate their efforts in maintaining their herd. The Zigans’ two Lely Astronaut A-4 milking robots can handle 60 cows a day. The machines milk 24 hours a day and with two machines, they can milk two cows at a time. The Lely Juno push feeder and the Lely Discovery alley scraper also take some of the chores off their daily routine.

“It’s good for us because it frees up the physical labor of milking. You are working just as much, but you’re managing the herd instead of milking cows. You still have to check the cows and the computers, but you can do so much more with this technology,” Amanda said. “Not only can it help you oversee your farm from home, but you can also be in Jamaica, look at your phone and you know what your cows are doing. You don’t even have to be there.”

The robotics not only muck out the barn, feed and milk the cows, but also provide detailed information about the productivity of the herd. Each cow is fitted with a special collar that communicates to the robots when the animal enters the milking stall. The collars tell the machine which cow is being milked, how much she is milked, how long it took to milk her and her conductivity. The collars also track her movements to inform the farmer if she is ready for breeding again.

Although the technology takes a lot of the guesswork out of farming, it is still important to continue to ensure a herd is healthy, happy and in top performance.

“Robots are not something you can put in and then not attend to your herd,” said Derek.

Robotic milking is also enjoyable for the cows. The Zigans note that these curious animals tend to be distracted and less cooperative when humans are around. With the machines, the cows enter the milking stalls entirely on their own free will and are awarded for their visit by an energy pellet that provides nutrients they need in their diet, tastes pleasant and makes them feel good. It is so effective that cows will sometimes attempt to visit the machine before they are ready for another milking.

Due to the collars, the robot knows when a cow is not ready for another milking. To encourage the animal to exit the stall, the machine will vibrate and will not reward her with a pellet treat. It is this gentle milking process that allows for greater production than traditional milking practices, as the cows will voluntarily enter the stalls and can be milked up to three times a day, the couple said.

“Each robot will do 5,000 pounds of milk per day. You can see which cows are your good cows and find ways of making your milk production even better. These are things that you couldn’t do without the robots because you were too busy milking your   cows   yourself,”   said

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The Zigans knew that it was time to make a change when their old barn needed to be replaced and as they competed with other, larger dairy farms in finding good farmhands. They had the options of building new or to stop farming. Not wanting to give up on a small farm that the Zigan family has been working for three generations, the couple began researching and touring robotic farms.

“It’s pretty new and not an exact science right now,” said Derek. “We took some information from each of the farms that we visited. You can’t go to just one farm and say that’s what you’re going to do. You can go back and forth with sales people all day, but you need to take your time to go out on the tours and talk to these farmers.”

Despite all the promising features and productivity that comes from having the robots, obtaining the funding for the new technology proved to be quite challenging. Even with their paperwork in order and the research they needed under their belt, the young couple still experienced a lot of financing brick walls mostly due to the fact that the technology is new and because of their age.

“It took some time to find someone who would give us the time of day. To work with us and have faith in us. We had three things working against us: We are dairy, we wanted robotics and we are young. But we are pretty persistent people, and we felt that it was our responsibility to the family farm to stay here and keep farming,” Amanda said.

Grants through Todd County and the Minnesota Department of Agriculture also helped make the construction of their new barn a possibility.

“That’s one place that being young helps because those grants are there to help young farmers. Those people who give out grants are looking for young and transitioning farmers, and those looking to make their farms more efficient. We met those three qualifications that they really like to see. So don’t be afraid to write those grants. It’s free money,” Amanda said.

The robots are stated to last seven years and then technology upgrades are suggested, but the Zigan’s feel that their machines will last closer to fifteen. The new barn will hold strong for much longer than that and will provide an asset to their children who will carry this family dairy operation through to another generation and another era of technological advancements in the dairy industry.

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