By DEBORAH GERTZ HUSAR
Herald-Whig Staff Writer
MENDON, Ill. -- The cows are lined up for milking at the Shupe Dairy Farm north of Mendon.
Rod Shupe keeps watch as the cows move through one by one, but he's no longer doing the milking.
That's left up to a robotic system, in place on the farm since September, that handles the job around the clock.
It's a high-tech system for a farmer who admits he's not a high-tech guy.
"I'm pretty good at what I do, but this thing is better than me," Rod said. "I don't like to admit that, but with this technology, you can't get any better when it comes to milking technique."
The promise of feed pellets and the desire to be milked draws the cows to the milking area. A gate shuts behind the cow, then the system scans her electronic identification tag, determining whether she's ready to be milked.
"Say a cow got milked at 6 and comes back four hours later. Depending on production, the computer robot knows, ‘I kick you out because you have to wait an hour or two more to have more milk' or ‘I keep you because you're milking so well,' " Rod said. "That's what makes the decision, the robot. It's unbelievable what it can do."
The cow eats a ration of feed pellets as the robotic arm attaches to her udder and does the milking while tracking her milk production and feed intake. The milk then travels through an insulated pipeline into the farm's storage tank, which is emptied every other day.
"It really changes how the dairyman manages his cows," said Curt Heimer with Kaeb Equipment, which installed the Lely Astronaut robotic system. "It really gives him a different lifestyle. He doesn't have to be there at 5 a.m. and 5 p.m. each day. There's some flexibility in how he manages his cows."
"What you're not doing is spending what would have been three hours a day, twice a day, because it's milking time," Rod said. "When you're trying to cut hay, you don't have to stop and come back and do three hours and go back. You can get done earlier doing everything else. It frees up labor time."
He said the system also boosts milk production.
"You've got to have a good feed program, a good nutritionist, to make it all like a domino. One leads to another," he said. "The profitability goes up. The savings of labor goes up."
A nearly fatal health scare prompted the Shupes to look at making changes in the dairy operation.
Rod and his brother Roger split the farming work. Roger handles the crop side -- raising corn, soybeans, hay and silage -- while Rod oversees the dairy.
Rod hadn't missed a milking in 25 years until a brain infection in July 2011 put him in the hospital for 50 days.
"Most people said you were supposed to die. I survived," he said.
Rod spent the next nine months recuperating from the infection, which initially left him unable to walk, as well as skin grafts, double hernia surgery and a knee replacement. Back at work on the farm, Rod developed an infection in his knee that led to four more months of recuperation and four knee surgeries in 13 months.
"My brother had to literally on the fly figure out what to do, and that is, in a nutshell, why my brother decided to explore the option," Roger said. "I'm 59 soon. He's 60. If we want to keep going for another decade, we thought it probably might be a good idea to do it."
Work on the new system began in April. Hesse Builders did the construction work, then Kaeb installed the system in a new building between the feed barn and the former milking barn.
A three-week "training" period helped acclimate the cows to the new system. They walked through the new milking area for a week, then the brothers started closing the gate, pouring pellets into the feed box and simulated the milking process.
"We were using a long-handled brush and brushing the udder while she was eating," Rod said.
The first milking with the new system meant "training" the laser for each cow, with Rod positioning the milkers.
"I was in there 14 straight hours the very first milking, but on the third milking, I counted 23 cows in a row waiting," he said. "They were pretty hip to what was going on."
Cows generally act better with the robotic milking systems.
"They get used to routine, and it's the same every time. It's not like there's different people milking all the time," Rod said.
Rod has developed his own routine with the robotic system.
First thing each morning, he checks the computer screen for the overnight data on everything, including the number of milkings -- the dairy aims for three in each 24-hour period -- the number of failures, and the "box time" for each cow.
"If you have nine cows in 60 minutes, your box time has to be somewhere in the 6.5-minute range. Seven minutes is what we're at right now," Rod said. "The flow of cows is what really does make you all the extra dollars. If you have bad flow, they won't be milked as much. If they won't be milked as much, they don't make as much money."
It's integrating old traditions and new technology on the farm, and it might become more common as farmers age and farmworkers become harder to find.
Lely Astronaut, a Dutch-based agricultural company, has about 1,000 robotic milking units in North America, with the closest to Mendon two or three hours away, and other companies make similar equipment.
One unit can milk 60 to 65 cows, the size of the Shupes' Holstein herd.
"We can feed cows on an individual basis, know their heat cycles. ... We can put in all the data when she was bred, track through the gestation cycle, the calving cycle," Kaeb Equipment's Heimer said.
But the system still needs human management.
"He gets all the phone calls," Roger said.
"If something's wrong -- sometimes it's not much -- there's a warning system on your cellphone. It's loud," Rod said.
Even something as simple as a kink in a chain tied to the system can prompt a warning call.
"Literally there's no way for it to fix itself until you unkink the chain," Rod said. "Those things happen. That's why you can't just walk away."