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Ben Vanderbilt: A lean, robot herd-managing machine

Torie Noellsch Published on 26 September 2014

Most people consider searching Craigslist for a bike, couch or even a roommate. Not many can claim that an advertisement on this website is how they began a career as a manager for a 500-cow robot-milking herd.

Similarly, it’s not typical for a dairy owner to hire a new herd manager who has very little cow experience. For SwissLane Dairy Farms in Alto, Michigan, this is exactly what happened. And it was a perfect fit.

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In 2011, SwissLane Dairy Farms, a 2,000-cow operation, had plans to shift about 500 cows to a new freestall barn with eight automatic milking units. In looking for a herd manager for this new facility, the owners placed an ad on Craigslist and came across candidate Ben Vanderbilt.

Ben’s cow experience was limited, but his manufacturing experience as a production supervisor for an aerospace facility was promising. The owners of SwissLane Dairy Farms were not only looking to become more labour-efficient through utilizing their new robots, they were also looking for someone who could think “lean.” Ben Vanderbilt was the man for the job.

From the start of Ben’s career at the dairy farm nearly three years ago, he has acquired “cow sense” through the owners’ mentoring and has brought a wealth of knowledge from his five-year manufacturing career and put it to work at SwissLane Dairy Farms.

“The way I put it, I was manufacturing electronic circuit cards before, and here we’re manufacturing milk. The way you manage and utilize robots is similar; hitting production numbers is all quite the same,” Ben says.

The manager says his on-farm management style has been heavily influenced by his past. “The company I came from was very lean-driven, so much that we had our own lean department with about seven people overseeing it.

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We had Kaizen events on a regular basis, which is pretty much an observation process of what is currently being done to find ways to be more efficient. I am always trying to manage work flow. When I came to the farm, I was ready to implement lean because it’s my management style.”

With six full-time employees to manage, Ben’s first goal was to put standard operating procedures (SOPs) in place. “It’s hard to manage people and hold them accountable when there isn’t documentation of their responsibilities. Plus, I think it’s important for the people I’m managing to be self-sufficient.

I give them the parameters to make their own decisions. You can become a lot more efficient if you get away from ‘I’m the boss’ mentality and try to empower people to become their own boss and take pride in what they do,” Ben explains.

Ben’s next feat in making the farm more labour-efficient was visual management. “I began tracking data and managed the metrics of the two farms so people could see the trends. We got an even clearer look at where we stood in regards to efficiency when Lely sent a team to do lean research.

They were able to guide me through with the cow flow and people flow. These guys knew exactly what was going on and gave me a new way of looking at things. The biggest change was formalizing an overall plan to do things with purpose.

Before, we had all these chores we had to do, and we just did them as they came up, reacting rather than being proactive. For example, we have four milk pens and all need scraping, cleaning, fetching, etc.

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Before the lean event, we did all these activities as we noticed they needed to be done. After, we noticed it was more efficient to work individual pens. Why? It helped employees feel more successful, we weren’t disrupting the barn all day long, we were able to finish one pen in a short period of time, etc.

It changed our thought process, making things more efficient and taking a lot of footsteps out. We’re probably still achieving the same number as far as production goals, but better cow and people flow has allowed more time to get other things done.”

In June 2014, Ben began utilizing a herd mobile management system and has found it has potential to even further increase the leanness of the robot operation. “I feel this program merges nicely with my current management strategy because the app program basically manages the way I do; I just don’t have to worry as much with a PC and hard copies.

The advantages to using this management system will mostly associate with time savings, ease of completing a task and better communication with what needs to be done.

So far, we’ve seen that pushing cows with the app saves a lot of time and makes things very easy for the employees. Also, placing a milk separation through the app is a great convenience and easy. Although we haven’t really started tracking time savings, I’d say we save at least five minutes for every cow that needs milk separation in a day and 45 minutes per day for our barn tech.”

With a vision to expand to 16 robots milking 1,000 head of cattle, the farm must be thinking leaner than ever to ensure the current labour can maximize their on-farm efficiencies to get the job done. With Ben Vanderbilt in place to lead the troops and the right technology to enable him to do so, SwissLane Dairy Farms is more than confident in their ability to achieve this goal.  PD

Torie Noellsch
  • Torie Noellsch
  • Marketing Coordinator
  • Lely

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