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R&D Garfat Farms installs robot as North American pilot project

Alice Guthrie for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2017
Adam Garfat pats newest baby calf

When R&D Garfat Farms decided to try something new on the farm, they went with something really new. The farm was the first in North America to install a GEA Monobox automatic milking system.

At the time of installation, this pilot project was only the fifth in the world for this particular model.

This family farm was established in 1890 by Joseph Garfat and has passed to son Frank, grandson Joseph and great-grandson Robert (Bob), who took over in the early ’90s.

Now the farm is in transition to Bob’s son Adam. This is a gradual transition, planned to occur over a five- to 10-year period, with shares in the incorporated business to be transferred as they are ready to do so.

Adam attended Ridgetown College, graduating in ’99 with a degree in agriculture, after which he came home to work full time with his dad and his mom, Dorothy. Together they work 500 acres, growing corn, beans, wheat and alfalfa.

Part of the harvest is sold as cash crops, while the remainder serves as forage for their 54-cow milking herd. They purchase protein pellets, minerals, etc., to supplement the feed they produce.

They own 115 total head of cattle; all are registered Holsteins, DHI-tested and type-classified. Three cows classified Excellent are in residence now, but there have been others.

Prior to 2015, the Garfats worked in an old barn that was built in 1929 and had undergone multiple renovations over the years. It was a tiestall barn with a pipeline milking system. The facility was labour-intensive and needed upgrading.

Bob says that, for him, the choice was to quit or change systems. Both he and Dorothy have health issues, and Adam’s wife, Heather, says “quality of life” was an important issue for the younger couple.

The new system includes a new barn with 64 freestalls, pens for heifers, calves and dry cows. Baby calves spend their first two months in hutches and then move into the barn.

The automatic milking unit liners up for attachment

There is a five-stall training area near the robot where cows can be sorted for herd health, breeding or special needs, and an area for close-up cows where they can be easily monitored.

Freestalls are bedded with chopped straw over cushioned rubber mats, while the pens are bedded packs. Scrapers clean the barn area, and comfort features like brushes keep the cows happy. Large fans and window curtains provide for ventilation and air flow.

They started using the new barn in November 2015. To direct cow flow around the robot, the barn features a one-direction sort gate and controlled traffic system – it allows cows to go for milking, separates desired cows or shunts them back to the feedbunk with a three-way sorting gate.

The computer is programmed for each cow to milk a set number of times per day, so if a cow is not yet eligible to milk, the gate sends it back to the feed area.

The barn is divided into the feed area and the freestalls with a couple of one-way gates between. These gates almost eliminate fetch cows, as they cannot return to the feed area without first going through the sort gate.

The controlled traffic flow encourages cows to go through frequently, and therefore they are milked regularly. Cows needed for breeding or other work can be sorted to the training pen as they come through the sort gate. Adam mentions that the cows learned the new system quickly.

He says they chose their specific robot because of its attachment system. The robot identifies teats and puts the inflations on – washing occurs inside the inflations (instead of in a separate operation), rinses and drains.

It then stimulates letdown, milks and post-dips before the inflations come off. There is no cross-contamination of milk with wash or rinse water, or with the dip.

Milk can be sent to different locations; there are three options: drain and discard, keep for calf milk or to the tank for sale. Milk from different quarters can also be separated and sent in different directions if desired.

Adam says the company was “great to work with.” They have had no real problems, just some minor glitches in the first few weeks. Many fixes were done over the phone. “Reliability seems really good,” he indicates.

The milking robot features a feed bucket, which has three positions to keep cows in the correct location for milking, depending on size of the individual cow. Cows are fed 16 percent protein pellets while milking, with the amount based on each cow’s production.

Adam does not have immediate plans for further expansion and has no desire for a huge herd. He says about 60 cows would be comfortable for him but needs more quota before making even that modest increase to his herd.

He would like to add an automatic feed pusher in the near future, though.

Bob has no plans for immediate retirement. He figures he will “just keep kicking around.” Bob is a past Holstein director and has served 28 years as a volunteer fireman.

Dorothy keeps active in church involvement and would like to travel, so Bob figures there could be some of that ahead for him.

Adam and Heather enjoyed a winter holiday in Antigua in January. The young couple is active with friendships in their time off.  end mark

PHOTO 1: Adam Garfat pats the farm’s newest baby as his dad, Bob, looks on.

PHOTO 2: The automatic milking unit lines up for attachment. Once attached, all teat prep, milking and post-dip occurs within the inflation. Photos by Alice Guthrie.

Alice Guthrie is a freelance writer based out of Hagersville, Ontario.

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