Having grown up on Hillside Farm in Pulaski County, it seemed only natural to Scott Flory that he remain on the land that has been farmed by his family (the Guthries) since 1795, so he became a seventh generation farmer and a second generation dairy farmer. His parents, Dale and Janet Guthrie Flory, introduced the dairy component to the farm in 1980. When Scott married and brought his wife, Laura, into the partnership with his parents in 2009, the two young dairy science graduates of Virginia Tech started doing research and planning.
They determined that a robotic dairy would fit their family and business goals very well. Farming has always been hard work and probably will continue to be, but many improvements can be made by working smarter with technology that is now available. The use of a robotic dairy operation requires that farmers develop a wide range of technical and computer skills to maintain the equipment and troubleshoot any problems.
The farm consists of 800 acres, 500 of which is owned, and the rest is rented ground. In addition to dairy farming, the Florys produce a variety of crops including corn, soybeans, wheat, alfalfa and grass hay. Corn, soybeans and wheat are sold locally while their milk is marketed through a farmer-owned cooperative and sold on the East Coast. Hillside Farm employs eight people with a wide range of responsibilities including calf care, feeding and nutrition; cow health and monitoring; business management; and crop production.
The Florys are experiencing excellent results from the robotic system. With the introduction of Lely robotics, they have been able to milk twice as many cows (now 240) with the same number of people. Despite the increased physical labor efficiency, there remains a lot to do behind the scenes of the system. On a daily basis, the milking machines must be maintained, high quality fresh feed made available, data received from each cow reviewed, and all the other jobs that go along with operating a dairy farm. Even with the state-of-the-art milking system, it is often necessary for someone to go out two or three times a day to round up any cows that have not come in for milking on their own.
Each of the 240 cows wears an ID transponder on a collar that carries all her information; it is scanned every time she walks up to a robot. Scott laughingly refers to these transponders as “Fit Bits For Cows”. Each cow may come for grain and get milked up to six times a day. There are four robotic milkers, any one of which is capable of scanning a cow’s collar upon her approach. It tells how many times the cow has already been milked that day, as well as her average milk production. The transponder captures a great deal of other health information about each cow, including how much she is eating, her body temperature, udder health and pattern of activity. The system is designed to alert farm personnel to possible symptoms of illness so they can be addressed quickly before the problem can become serious.
In addition to benefiting the people on the farm, the cows also enjoy a lifestyle that makes them more contented. Experts generally agree that contented cows produce better milk with an increase in production. This has certainly been the experience of the Florys since they switched from the twice daily (2:30 a.m. and 2:30 p.m. every day) milking system to the new robotic system.
The calves live together in a separate barn which is automated to allow the calves to choose when they want to eat. This way the calves are able to start early on a more natural and less stressful lifestyle.
The cows are able to be milked when they want, and the system is able to sense when all four quarters of the udder are empty. The cows of Hillside Farm enjoy a wide range of low stress, high comfort amenities: automatic brushes scattered around the barn provide back scratches; shades and automatic fans keep the barn cool; a barn which flushes itself clean every hour (turning the aisles into rushing waterways that sweep debris and manure away to be filtered and recycled); conveniently and robotically placed piles of precisely mixed feed containing corn silage, soybeans and alfalfa grown right there on the farm; and choice of which straw or sand to use for resting. Farmers are better able to learn more about the unique personality of each cow, making for better relationships.
The Florys are very good stewards of the land and use many recycling and sustainability practices to help carry out that stewardship. The new systems and innovative practices that have been adopted have not only increased the overall efficiency of the farm while taking good care of the land, but also allow more flexibility to enjoy a good balanced lifestyle outside the dairy. Laura Flory shares: “While the cows are leisurely eating and milking as they please, we are like the pit crew that rushes around during a race making sure things are always running at their best.”
How do the cows react to the high quality lifestyle they are able to enjoy on Hillside Farm? The considerable increase in milk production speaks for itself!
Text by Sheila D. Nelson
Photos by Always and Forever Photography
Sheila D. Nelson is a native of and freelance writer in Pulaski County.