WABASSO - Brothers Nels and Matt Goblirsch are third-generation dairy farmers, but they don't milk cows the old-fashioned way. In fact, people have come from all over the world to tour the advanced dairy operation at the Goblirsch farm near Wabasso.
"Matt feeds the cows. I milk the cows," Nels Goblirsch said. "My parents, Bernard and Mary Clare, take care of the calves. It's completely family-run at this time."
Animal agriculture, which includes the dairy industry, accounts for $8 billion economically in Minnesota. While small by many standards, the Goblirsch family is making a big impact by using cutting-edge technology to improve production and animal health.
Photo by Jenny Kirk
Nels Goblirsch stands on the overhead walkway of a highly-advanced dairy production facility that he and his brother Matt Goblirsch built and now operate on their family farm near Wabasso.
"We were the first ones in Minnesota to put in robotic milking," Goblirsch said. "We were almost the first ones in the United States."
The state-of-the-art Lely Astronaut robotic milking system decreases labor, increases production and allows more free-range opportunities for the dairymen's herd of approximately 240 Holsteins.
"My brother and I are always looking for new ways to get more and more production and to alleviate more labor," Goblirsch said. "We gain production quite a bit, just going from the stanchion barn to this."
Another big improvement, Goblirsch said, is improved animal health, not only because robotic milking frees up more time to spend on cow care, but in part because of specially-made Dual Chamber Cow (DCC) Waterbeds that they installed.
"When we built the barn in 2005, our goal was to alleviate labor," Goblirsch said. "The waterbeds were just doing one of the these things for us. The animals seem happy with it."
Cow comfort is something that the Goblirsches are very passionate about. So much so that, after doing their research, they installed the best bedding available to them, despite the expensive upfront cost.
"We're impressed with the way they work," Goblirsch said. "We've never seen any adaption problems at all with the waterbeds. The cows love them."
Holly Harper, communications director for DCC Waterbeds, a small family-owned business in Wisconsin, said that the waterbeds are the only man-made bedding surface that gently moves with the cow's skin to avoid abrasions, providing superior cow comfort.
"There's a transfer chamber in between," Goblirsch said. "When a cow drops down to her knees, there's water up there in the front pillow. The water doesn't quickly disperse to the rear, so it cushions her knees when she falls. Then it cushions the back as she drops down."
It might take up to a week for a cow to figure out how to get properly aligned in the stall, Goblirsch said, but once she does, she doesn't forget. The sight doesn't go unnoticed to the many visitors, some from as far away as France and India, who come to tour the facility, he said.
"It's a calm environment," Goblirsch said. "Everyone says the cows look so relaxed. One lady from France said we had very lazy cows."
Goblirsch explained to the French woman that cows make about 80-90 percent of their milk while sleeping. While their cows are out grazing in the pastures and soaking in the river in France, Goblirsch said, his cows are conserving energy.
"I told them, 'you do realize that we're almost double, triple your amount of milk production?'" Goblirsch said. "They were amazed."
More than 250,000 DCC Waterbeds have been installed in 18 countries. The waterbeds include a 10-year warranty, Harper said, and no additional bedding is required, which results in huge annual savings.
"The cows sleep on the waterbeds and stay pretty clean," Goblirsch said. "They're rubber, so bacteria can't grow in them. Nothing sticks to it."
The Goblirsches began robotic milking in 2006 with two Lely robots. After having some trouble, newer versions were installed in 2007. A year later, two more robots were added, so that there were two robots on each side of the barn. As part of the free-range concept, each cow determines her own schedule, deciding when she wants to eat, sleep and be milked.
"It's all voluntary," Goblirsch said. "There's nobody out there chasing the animals in."
The cows learn to use a one-way gate to get in line to be milked.
"The cow stands on a floating floor that has a scale pin in all four corners," Goblirsch said. "That's how the robot knows where the animal is at."
If a cow backs up, the robotic arm compensates. A high-tech laser then kicks in and lines up a cow's udder, first to wash it, then to extract milk.
"It gets a 3-dimensional picture of her teats and knows precisely where they are and how big they are," Goblirsch said. "It cleans the teats one at a time."
Once washed, the robot milks the cow while she eats high-energy feed dispensed in proper amounts.
"She gets rewarded for coming to the stall," Goblirsch said. "The more she milks, the more she gets fed. But the robot never overmilks any teat."
Milk is funneled into a jar to determine its quality before being pumped into a 4,000-gallon tank. The Goblirsches have two massive tanks that are used alternately. While one collects milk, the other is cleaned. Someone picks up the milk every other day.
"The cleanliness of the milk is just unreal," Goblirsch said. "If for any reason, if the robot sees blood, an infection, too high of a temperature or too high of a somatic cell count, it will dump the bad milk into a different container and let me know to look at it."
Afterward, the teats are disinfected, as are the brushes that are used in the cleaning process.
"The teats are sprayed with a disinfectant as the cow leaves," Goblirsch said. "They're doing this a number of times a day, so bacteria never has time to grow."
The average cow in the herd milks 3.5 times a day, producing between 70-75 pounds of milk daily. In older cows, Goblirsch said, the number will drop down to twice a day. The fresh cows are milking an average of 4.5 to 5 times a day. Cows spend 10 months milking and are then dry for two months.
"They learn to figure out that by relieving the milk, they do feel better," Goblirsch said. "But I think they come more for the treat."
The entire barn at the family farm is run by a network computer system.
"The computer shows times of milking, connection times, failures, refusals, total milk, whether any cows are late and so on," Goblirsch said. "It also tells you if anything is wrong with hoses or wires."
Heating and cooling systems are also computer-operated.
"It's all climate-controlled," Goblirsch said. "It stays between 40 to 50 degrees. Fresh air also gets in."
Being outdoors in the summer, Goblirsch said, it doesn't take long for animals to overheat. Flies, which can be detrimental to milk production because it overstresses the cows, are also manageable since barns are easily treated. By controlling their environment, it helps the cows live longer.
"It used to be that cows lived six to seven years, but now, it's nothing to see cows as old as 10, 11, 12," he said.
In addition to video surveillance, the facility also has automatic watering systems, grooming brushes and cleaning robots.
"The cleaning robot starts up at the top of every hour and cleans the whole barn," Goblirsch said, "It's like a big oval squeegee. He just pushes the manure through the slotted floor and keeps the barn clean."