Sun-Ton Farms has taken on several new employees to help with its organic dairy operation near Adna, though they’re not the typical farm hands the fourth-generation family farm has hired in the past.
For one thing, none of them have hands. They tend to draw curious eyes when they go about the barn doing their daily tasks, partially because of the exceptional quality of their work, but mostly because they’re robots.
Sun-Ton Farms celebrated the installation of its new Lely robots with an open house Friday.
“This is our best effort to guarantee a future (for the farm),” Zach Schilter said of the decision to incorporate robots into Sun-Ton Farms’ operation.
The Schilter family first started talking about the prospect of introducing robots to the farm in 2018, but began seriously considering the shift when a milker quit in December 2020 right before most of the family was going to go on vacation to Disney World.
“That’s when it got serious, like, ‘OK, we really have to find another solution to this labor problem,’ because it was taking longer and longer and longer to even find someone that might be interested in milking cows,” said Zach’s mother, Michelle Schilter.
She and her husband, Lonny Schilter, head the current operation of Sun-Ton Farms.
“We really wanted to make sure that we found a system or we designed a system that fit our wants and desires and was cost effective,” Zach Schilter said.
Everyone in the family pitched in on the design process, which mostly took place at the family’s kitchen table, with people sketching out their designs onto napkins and pizza boxes and arguing ideas back and forth until someone ordered them all to bed.
Ultimately, they agreed on the design that is now incorporated into the barn.
The front of the barn houses four Lely Astronaut A5 milking robots, where cows can walk into a stall at will and munch on grain while the robot milks. Each cow wears an RFID tag that operates similarly to a FitBit (or, as Zach Schilter called it, a “CowBit”), which the Astronaut reads when a cow walks into the booth. If the cow has been milked recently, the machine simply doesn’t start and the cow eventually leaves the booth.
The Astronaut gathers data from each cow during milking, which can be viewed on a monitor attached to the robot, and transports the milk to a storage tank.
A tag-reader on the pasture gate opens when a cow that’s been recently milked approaches it but stays closed for a cow in need of milking, which gives each cow plenty of opportunity to access the robotic milker.
Other robots in the barn include rotating cow brushes that line the sides of the barn for the cows to scratch their faces and backs, and a feed pusher affectionately nicknamed after the Pixar character “WALL-E” that rolls back and forth in the trough area pushing wayward hay back into the cows’ reach.
“This came from the combined effort of all of the wants and needs of everybody on this farm. And it's very unique,” Zach Schilter said. “I believe that it is something that … will be copied, it will be something that will be available to any farmer that wants to come see it and implement it in their own farm. Because it's cost effective, and it's great for cow flow, and it really is simple for farmers to figure out how to put it into their own system.”
Construction to accommodate the new robots began in January 2022 and Dairy Specialists LLC finished installing the Lely robots in July.
While the shift to robots required some training and forced the Schilter family to relearn some of their farm skills, “you don’t have to rewrite everything,” Zach Schilter said. “This is a setup that is applicable to the knowledge that my grandpa's had over the past 50 years, that my dad has had over the past few years. And then the knowledge that I've had over the past however many years, and so this is very fit-to-your-needs-type setup. And the cows love it.”
Out of his siblings, Zach Schilter said he is the most interested in coming back to the farm after he graduates from college next year.
“This is what I want to do for the rest of my life. I love doing this. I love the cows,” he said.
Each of the 500 or so cows on the farm has its own name, he said, and the family keeps cows that are older than the industry-norm to give cows the opportunity to produce as long as they want.
“This is very family oriented. And the cows are probably just as much a part of the family,” he said.
For more information on Sun-Ton Farms, visit the farm’s Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100063543243972
Lely North America provides and supports robotic milking technology in the United States and Canada and has been a leader in dairy innovation in North America for 25 years, according to a statement on its website. More information on its products can be found at https://www.lely.com/us/.
Dairy Specialists supplies commercial dairy farms with parlor designs, new construction, remodels, robotic milkers, dairy waste management and support and technical services, according to a statement on its website. More information is available at https://www.dairyspecialists.com/.