Computers and robots keep farm profitable

ERSKINE, Alta. — Embracing technology and sustainability has kept three families on one farm in central Alberta.

For Calvert and Conlee Haustein, there was never any doubt they would join the operation that has been in the family for more a century.

Working with their parents, Doug and Bernardette, the two young men are part of a new generation introducing innovations and sustainable practices to the dairy, beef and cropping operation.

“This farm is supporting three families and none of us have an off-farm job so we are doing OK. We spend our time making sure we are efficient,” said Doug.

“I wasn’t a strong dairy man in my younger years but the dairy part of the farm always kept the bills paid so I kept with them. When Con and Cal got more interested, we built it up,” he said.

Doug’s great-grandparents, Paul and Suzanne Gabriel, homesteaded the farm and first lived in a sod shack. The farm flourished and today Haustein Farms includes grain, a herd of about 70 beef cows and an innovative dairy operation that showcases technology new to Canada.

Doug and Bernardette started the dairy division in 1974 with five Holstein cows. Newly married without a penny to spare, they worked together renovating an old horse barn.

“We ripped it all to make it suitable and put more support in the ceiling. We took the materials that made the box stalls and I picked the nails out of it to make the stancheons. We used them up until last year,” said Bernardette, who now cares for new calves in that old barn.

Grain prices were up and interest rates were low when they decided to build a new barn and lagoon and introduce an automated milking system.

“We had built our farm up over 40 years so we had a large equity and land base and we had a good relationship with lenders,” said Doug.

The family was able to do much of the reconstruction themselves but only after considerable homework was done to make it environmentally sound and profitable.

The new operation started Dec. 29, 2014 and from January to March they trained the cows to live indoors full time and visit one of two robot milkers instead of a twice a day milking schedule.

“Every cow in a robot barn has her own schedule. They come to the robot around the same time every day unless something happens to upset their schedule,” said Conlee.

“I calculated milking time was cut in half using robots,” said Doug.

“We can focus more on managing the whole farm and continue it.”

Each cow wears an electronic collar where readings are taken. Their feed intake is more consistent and a computerized system can help the family monitor usage, milk output, rumination, general activity and barn conditions using Wi-Fi from a nearby tower.

The computer can also analyze and flag sick cows or those going into heat.

A robot patrols the feed bunks and sweeps up feed and packs it into tighter rows so the cows waste less.

Canada’s first aerobic flush barn, another innovation, is a unique barn cleaning system. Rather than using automatic scrappers to remove manure, the barn was designed to allow water to wash down one of four smooth concrete alleyways every hour. The waste water goes to a lagoon where aerobic microbes are at work.

“We are using biology and the natural UV rays from the sun to control disease and do the decomposition,” said Cal.

The wastewater is used to irrigate nearby crops.

When the automatic washer turns on, the cows often stand as the cold water moves through and washes their feet, reducing hoof problems.

“We haven’t had a hoof trimmer come here in two years,” said Conlee.

The cows once lived outdoors full time but now they are in a well-lit barn with individual free stalls lined with gel mats and canola straw. The straw is chopped into fine bits so it can quickly decompose.

There are large circulation fans on the ceiling to keep the barn cool and large doors at either end that can be opened.

This system needs internet service so they set up three access points throughout the farm so there is Wi-Fi everywhere.

“We took it farther than some farms. Our system, which controls the curtains, ventilations and the speed of the circulation fans is tied into the internet. I can change parameters from my house,” said Cal.

They are also considering connecting photo cells to the computer to maintain a certain light level for the cows.

Another monitor is on the milk tank to watch temperature changes and send an email or text to warn them when something is wrong.

They can set up cameras in a maternity pen to check on calving progress late at night.

“We are trying to take some of the technology that is out there and put it to use,” said Cal.

They calculate the cows are 40 percent more productive but it may take time before this renovation pays for itself. There are intangible benefits like using lagoon water for irrigation and collecting rainwater from the barn roof that gets piped into the plastic lined lagoon.

“There are a lot of things we can’t factor in. We will see more benefits in the field with more production of hay but to quantify that is so hard,” Conlee said.

Since 2005, they have changed the herd to Bavarian Fleckvieh from Holstein. They wanted sturdier, more fertile cows

The cows are bred using artificial insemination and no hormones are used to synchronize breeding.

The bull calves end up as steers and are fed to market weight in an on-farm feedlot while they keep their own replacement females. As crossbreds, the fleshier steers fetch the same price as beef cattle, an improvement over the market for Holstein steers.

“When we took them to a slaughter plant, we would automatically get 10-15 cents dockage (per pound) on the rail,” said Conlee.

The tradeoff is less milk but the butterfat and protein components are equal to what they previously achieved.

“The milk yield per day is less than a Holstein but because of the components, we find they produce the same as a Holstein. We get paid on components and that is what matters,” said Conlee.

“We don’t have to put as much into these cows so our profits are higher,” he said.

Semen came from a stud in southern Germany. John Popp of Manitoba is the North American distributor and Doug and Bernardette’s daughter, Cremona Primrose, is the Alberta distributor. She and her husband, Cornel, also raise Fleckvieh at Rumsey.

When they were younger, the sons left the farm for other experiences. Another brother, Chad, is working off the farm with plans to become an accountant.

Cal went to Olds College and became a licenced heavy duty mechanic, working off the farm for about seven years.

He and his wife, Amanda, have six children: Bryson, Rayell, Jaydon, Aryann, Dryton and Khylia.

Conlee went to school in Edmonton to learn cabinet making and eventually went on a student exchange to a New Zealand dairy for six months. He and his wife, Lorelyn, have a daughter, Haylah.

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