Hillcrest Farms, Inc., a successful family dairy run by brothers Mark and Andy Rodgers, has certainly overcome their region’s stifling heat and humidity, but another concern led them to start planning for a new way to dairy: labor.
Since 1941, the Rodgers family has owned and operated Hillcrest Farms, Inc. in Dearing, Ga. According to co-owner Mark Rodgers, their 430-cow dairy was the first in the “deep south” to reach an average milk production of 100 lbs. per cow and a 30,000 lbs. rolling herd average.
“To keep milking in the parlor, we just know we are going to face labor issues,” Marks says. “We can alleviate a large portion of that issue with the robots.”
Hillcrest Farms will be one of the first dairies in the U.S. milking with the all-new DeLaval VMS milking system V300™. The Rodgers family opted for five instead of six robots after learning about the improved capacity of the VMS V300.
The Rodgers family (L to R): Caitlin, Joshua, Jan, Mark, Gladys, Andy and Billy
“The newer robots are faster and we can run ten more cows per robot. So even though we pay more per robot, the total cost of the facility goes down,” confirms Mark, noting that remodeling and maintenance costs will be lower with fewer robots.
The Rodgers planned from the beginning to decrease their milking herd from 385 to approximately 330 cows, which they hope to start milking robotically by early 2019. To make this a possibility, they will retrofit their existing 482 ft. freestall flush barn which horizontally sits east-west to maximize air circulation. To the south, they will add on a robot room with three VMS V300 units, and to the north they’ll build another robot room with two units (expandable to three), a tank room, an office, and a visitors’ center.
Keeping their cows cool and comfortable is a major consideration for the dairy. “Our barn was built for hot weather, so we are somewhat limited in how we make the transition to robots,” says Mark. “We are good at cow management – that’s our thing.”
The existing barn is outfitted with forty 52-in. fans, a three-foot open ridge, 14-ft. eaves and a flood tip sprinkler system to wet cows at the feedbunk. An additional 16 fans will be added with the new robot facilities.
To accommodate dry cows in their retrofit plans, the Rodgers will use 40 existing stalls for a far-off dry cow pen and build a new 30-stall maternity barn for close-up cows. The close proximity of dry cows will help the dairy feed and cool them more effectively.
Mark and Andy’s kids will be the fourth generation to continue their family’s dairying tradition. Caitlin, Mark’s daughter is the farm’s operations manager; Josh, Andy’s son, is their “tech guy”; and Josh’s wife, Marlee, is studying to be a veterinarian. With their combined skill set, Mark believes the progression to robots was the best option for Hillcrest: “I think there’s so much opportunity over time [with robots]. That’s where it’s going.”