MYERSTOWN, Pa. — Milking with robots is much different from a tiestall environment — for the cows and the people. As Adam Light of Lebanon County, Pennsylvania makes the transition, the main thing he has to focus on is his own adjustment.
That’s because he sold the 100-cow registered Spotlight Holstein herd he had developed since 2011, milking in a barn he rented from his father in Jonestown as he purchased Ralph Moyer’s turnkey robotic dairy farm in Myerstown, along with the automated calf-feeding facilities, anaerobic digester and solids separator… and the 220-cow dairy herd right with it.
Two years later, Adam continues adjusting, and has great appreciation for the thought that went into every aspect of the operation’s design, which Moyer created in 2011 with the idea of attracting a younger generation to a business with long-term sustainability.
“It was a change in herd size and a big change of pace with a whole new way to manage cattle,” Adam reflects on the move.
“I hadn’t even used a computer with the other herd before this,” he admits.
It was a big change for the young dairyman who has great appreciation for mentors along the way, and the key ingredient he brings to the table is his affinity for working with cattle.
Since he first got started dairying on his own, it has been mentors like Dale Maulfair, Gary Lentz and others who have helped Adam learn and grow. His father, Bruce Light, just really likes farming, so he helps with planting crops, which are harvested by custom choppers.
Adam also appreciates the Moyers. “Ralph and Crystal have really helped us settle in,” he says. “Ralph worked with me for the first two months and really showed me the ropes. It was a big change coming from the tiestall barn to this.”
Not only did he have to learn the computer programs, like PC Dart, but also the robot technology, the barn systems, calf feeding systems, and the digester and manure management.
In some ways, Adam says he is still growing his skills in dairying, and now is learning on the automation side.
He grew up on a diversified crop, poultry and beef farm and had worked for nearby dairy farms as a youth. There, he developed an interest in dairying and began renting a dairy barn from his father on a farm he had purchased for cropland and the poultry setup.
Building the former registered Holstein herd in the tiestall environment, Adam always figured when the time came, he would buy that farm and modernize the dairy at that location.
When the time came to move the operation forward, the Moyer farm was on the market. Adam sold his smaller registered tiestall herd to another dairyman now renting his former barn, and purchased Moyer’s larger herd, the main farm consisting of 127 acres, the robotic facility with four Lely Astronauts, and the adjacent methane digester — settling on the property in February of 2020, just one month before the Coronavirus pandemic.
He also rents 170 acres next to the farm and 100 acres elsewhere, cropping 380 acres total to grow all the forages for the dairy and buying any additional feed from his father. A small amount of grain and the concentrate fed in the robots are purchased commercially.
The dairy’s crops include primarily corn silage, with some fields for shell corn, some soybeans, alfalfa and the wheat and rye double crop harvested in the spring as forage.
The effluent from the digester and solids separation is quite concentrated. Stored in a covered lagoon, it is protected from rainwater and contains no fiber, so there’s no clogging when using a dribble bar. During our mid-April visit, Adam was looking into using it as starter fertilizer.
“Without the solids and the rainwater, it’s pretty concentrated stuff,” he says, noting he had the digester engine rebuilt last fall. It’s something that needs done every couple of years, saving routine engine maintenance costs from wear and tear. In general, the digester costs $2500 to $3000 a month to maintain with the periodic rebuild cost factored in.
The separated solids are recycled as bedding on top of recycled rubber filled mattresses in the freestall barn. The perforated floors in the separator room use heat from the electricity-generating engine to dry the stacked solids.
“That heat reclamation to dry the solids is a great idea and works really well,” says Adam. The heat exchange and reclamation also keeps the digester tank warm for the anaerobic microbes and heats the water and rooms in the robot facility.
The digester is a key part of the operation and part of the long-term sustainable business Moyer sought to create when he did the project in 2011.
Like the cattle, the manure is managed through automated information systems. Alley-scrapers move manure to the end of the barn, where it goes to the smaller-scale digester storage unit. The system uses a “gas scrubbing” technology to optimize the methane that powers the engine to produce the electricity.
“Martin’s Energy can log into the digester, see the history, and see what any issues are and tell me if there is a problem or help me diagnose a problem,” Adam explains.
When it’s running full, the digester produces at a 90kw rate, covering all electricity needs of the dairy and over-generating credits to the grid, enough to power 50 homes.
Adam is someone who looks to learn from others. He utilizes the Center for Dairy Excellence programs, including a transition team.
He had visited the former Mor-Dale Acres once before, and when he heard it was for sale, he took a look and talked to Ralph.
Adam notes that the design of the facilities shows Ralph was conscious about reducing the time and labor of various jobs on the dairy.
“That change is still a big adjustment,” he says. “The barn is really labor-efficient and geared to make the most out of your time.
“Ralph was way more organized than I am. He is a really good dairyman and kept these facilities in great shape,” says Adam.
From an efficiency standpoint, Adam is sold on the robots and the automation after two years of operating this dairy that is all new to him. At the same time, he admits that when there is a problem, like trying to figure out why cows aren’t producing quite as much milk, it can be a harder thing to correct in the automated setting than in the hands-on setting he was accustomed to.
“I know the cows are capable of making a few more pounds of milk,” he says. “I’m getting more familiar with looking at the data to figure out an issue.”
Sometimes it can feel like information overload as Adam learns how to isolate the data that are most meaningful. The activity monitors and conductivity are key indicators, and he likes being able to look back in time to see the chronology of events.
This is something that isn’t easy to do in a tiestall setting but can be done in a snap with automation.
Something he is looking at next is resurfacing some of the concrete to increase comfort for the cows in their movements through the barn to encourage normal biorhythms, robot visits, and reduction in ‘hanging out’ by the robots.
Adam is also trialing the Udder Comfort Battery-Operated Backpack Sprayer, a hands-off way to apply the Udder Comfort spray in the fresh cow pen for several days post-calving. Already, he has noticed udders get softer, faster, which increases cow comfort in meaningful ways in the voluntary robotic milking setup. Swelling is leaving udders in half the time (at 5 days fresh instead of 10), so he’s expanding to group applications for all fresh cows and working on comparing various metrics.
As for the transition from tiestall to robotic milking, a key difference he sees is the cows in this facility behave more like the herd animals they are.
“In the tiestall barn, we were hands-on with those cows all the time, but in this environment, they establish their own routines, so the less we have to be in their space, the more they will milk,” Adam observes, reporting his herd averages 2.5 robot visits per day. They were at 2.7 and his goal is to get to 2.9, so this is something he is focused on.
“Ralph put a lot of time and thought into this facility, and it was his family’s farm for generations,” Adam notes. “Everything about the farm is geared also to educating the public.”
Adam hasn’t picked up that torch yet on the school tours, but he can see this changing as he looks to the future.
With a young family, two daughters under five and one on the way, Adam appreciates the robotic dairy setup to be able to get away, even if it means being on the phone to receive alerts and delegate offsite.
“The girls are only going to be little for so long,” he says.
His wife Cassandra and the girls Rea and Tessa feed the calves. With the automated feeders, they only have a few to bottle feed at any given time, just the first couple days before they go into the groups.
Adam feels dairying is something that fits him well because he enjoys working with the animals and the farming side. The robots change that equation to the technology side, and he enjoys more variety in his work now.
“At my age, with a young family, I wondered how I would survive with 100 cows 10 years from now without changing something,” says Adam. He has seen others be successful starting a creamery, and he wasn’t sure if he would enjoy that.
“I like what I do now, with the dairy, and I wasn’t sure I’d be as passionate about the processing side. Working with animals, that’s what I’ve always liked,” he reflects.
In fact, now that he and his cousin Ben have been doing the Wagyu x Holstein beef sales, Adam has started thinking about how he could work with other farms in the area to bundle locally-produced foods.
He has learned from the beef sales that consumers really are looking to buy from farms and to source locally, especially when farmers can take steps to make it a little easier for them.
Adam knows the farm he is on now has a great story to tell, just the way the Moyers created it, a story he hopes he and his family can add to chapters to in the future.
— By Sherry Bunting