Growing and developing a century-old Creston dairy farm can be attributed to the hard work and long hours put in by Bob Larson’s father, grandfather and great-grandfather.
But the decision made by the fourth-generation of Larson Farms more than a year ago to largely automate his 350-cow operation by having four robotics booths actually do the day-to-day milking might be the ticket to keeping his dream alive for decades to come.
From noon-5 p.m. Sunday, anybody with interest is invited to attend the Larson Farms Robotic Dairy Open House. Larson said that since automating his operation in late February 2018, a lot of interest has swirled around what exactly is happening on his property. That interest is warranted since, according to Larson, his family’s operation is one of just three in the state utilizing this type of technology.
The thing is, many people hear robotics and dairy farming and can’t really visualize the process. Before learning about how automating a dairy operation worked while seeing milking robots on a 2014 trip to Canada, neither could he.
“When you hear robots, most people think of R2-D2,” he said, referencing Luke Skywalker’s robot pal from the iconic movie series ‘Star Wars.’ “I was still thinking that you would still be in a parlor pushing the cow, that there would be something moving to the cow to do it, not that the cow comes to the robot. That was kind of different in my mind, it just wasn’t the way I was thinking of it.”
The Open House will take place on the farm at 51069 190th Ave., which is located about 1 ½ miles north of the Creston Spur. There will be complimentary ice cream, cheese curds, pork sandwiches and of course, milk, for those who make the trip.
“We’ve had a lot of people who want to see the new robotic dairy and that kind of stuff,” Larson said, who in the past has hosted and gotten praise from the likes of Gov. Pete Ricketts, Congressman Jeff Fortenberry and Steve Wellman, the director of the Nebraska Department of Agriculture.
“So obviously we wanted to showcase that, but on the second side of that we wanted to let the consumer come in and see cows, see where their milk comes from, give them a tour, let them talk to me and my family and people in the industry and get a feel for what we are doing.”
With Larson’s father, Rick, well into his 60s and wanting to slow down his role a little on the farm, it forced Larson to start thinking a few years ago about the direction the operation was heading. The facility as a whole was aging, and with that age, its overall efficiency was beginning to decline.
For a time, there was actually some talk about whether it was time for the Larsons to get out of dairy. To reverse the efficiency meter from the red back into the green, it was determined that the operation might have to add another milking parlor.
“You would kind of have to go bigger, just to get those efficiencies,” he said. “Robotics really fit to keep the smaller family size going.”
So on Feb. 26, 2018, 240 of Larson’s animals started receiving daily milking from four Pella, Iowa, built Lely robots. An additional 110 dairy cows still are milked in the traditional way at the family’s old parlor. And though his operation has revved up, its actual staffing needs have decreased from 11 full-time members to six.
“A big driving factor is labor. Labor is very difficult in this area – finding that good quality labor,” Larson said. “That’s another driving force behind it.”
Each day at Larson Dairy looks about the same when viewing the milking process. Cows, unprodded, line up – some almost eagerly – waiting their turn to walk into one of four enclosed robotics milking stations. Each dairy cow is equipped with a tracker – think of a Fitbit device – that monitors whether they went in for milking on a particular day.
The driving force behind why the cows want to be milked is biological at its core. First, when cows’ udders swell with milk it creates pressure and discomfort that needs relieving. Two, a little food incentive never hurts either.
“It’s kind of a treat that they get,” Larson said of when a cow enters the pen. “It’s corn, soybean meal, molasses, a little bit of sugar – they just love that.”
The process itself takes about 6 ½ minutes and consists of the cows' teats being cleaned and stimulated, then having milk drawn out with individual drawing viles. That milk is then transported through lines into a collection tank made of glass. Each cow’s weight and other vitals can be monitored during the process.
The final milk product is ultimately sold to the Dairy Farms of America (DFA), which has notable brands like Roberts and Kraft, among others.
Larson said reaching the 100-year farm milestone is really a credit to many people. It’s been a team effort, sometimes involving a bit of sacrifice. Bob’s wife, Kelsey, before the 2018 move to robot automation worked as a licensed nurse practitioner at a clinic in Norfolk for 18 years.
“Then when he got this idea to do the barn I decided to come help here, just so I could spend more time with the kids and stuff – just so my schedule would be a little more free,” she said, referencing their children, 6-year-old Taytum, 10-year-old Tyce, 14-year-old Tanyn and 17-year-old Taylor, all of whom throw their hat in the ring to help out.
Although she grew up around farming in Lindsay and married a farmer – something when she was younger she swore she'd never do - she never imagined that she would one day actually get her hands dirty on one.
“I’m used to talking to people every day, socializing with people every day, having co-workers,” she said.
"And now I talk to my husband all day. And I guess the cows, but they never respond to me,” she added, with a laugh.
For Larson and his family, adaptation has really been the name of the game. The state dairy industry isn’t always the most forgiving, he said, adding that more than a dozen dairy operations in Nebraska closed shop during the last year or so.
Going automated, Larson said he hopes that his legwork – much like his relatives before him – might pay dividends with one day having his children come back and run the operation. He noted that, of course, it’s going to be their decision, but he’s hopeful that Larson Farms stays in family hands for far more than four generations.
“Small towns around here are dying, they are getting smaller and smaller,” he said. “So as we look at sustainability of small-town Nebraska, we need the next generations coming back and having families. So I guess that is my hope, that every farm in this area can have somebody come back to run it.”
Sam Pimper is the news editor of The Columbus Telegram. Reach him via email at email@example.com.