Knowing his grandpa was milking cows by hand 60 years ago, Ben Middendorf thinks he got the better end of the deal when his family constructed a 170-stall milking barn with three robotic milking units.

“It’s really interesting how the [dairy] industry has evolved through the years,” Ben said. “We have made so many advancements with just building this barn.” 

Ben, 22, along with his parents, Steve and Julie, are just shy of six months in a new 132- by 208-foot, six-row facility featuring three Lely A4 robotic milkers and other automated accessories to aid in comfort for the animals and a clean barn on the Middendorfs’ 130-cow farm south of Sauk Centre. 

With the next generation interested in continuing the dairying tradition, Steve and Julie knew they had to make the family dairy operation viable.

“That had to be done first in order to get a succession plan in place,” Steve said.

The Middendorfs’ original 64-cow tiestall barn was wearing down. To support additional family members, the Middendorfs began growing the herd. At one point, they were switching up to 75 cows each milking. Ben and Julie did all of the milking with Steve mixing and distributing the feed.

“Our old barn was getting rundown and we have kids who want to come home,” Julie said. “We had to decide our next step.”

The Middendorfs have four other children in addition to Ben – Leah, Spencer, Zachary and Sarah.

When it came to deciding the best facility for them, the Middendorfs knew a robotic barn would work after touring similar barns.

“Once I saw the barn, I knew it was the one we were looking for,” Steve said. 

The Middendorfs decided on a similar blueprint of one of the facilities they looked at. With the plan ready to go with a few tweaks, the construction process began quickly for the Middendorfs.

A plan was chosen in March 2017, but ground was not broken until October on account of permitting processes and business plan development.

“I was thinking we were going to run out of time [before winter] since everything was getting pushed back,” Steve said.

By December, the perimeter cement was poured, and the poles and rafters were set. In mid January, the barn was enclosed and work started on the interior of the facility. 

On May 15, the Middendorfs made a monumental move for their multi-generational farm when they sent their cows through robotic milkers for the first time.

“It went better than we expected,” Steve said. “We think it was because our cows were used to moving around a lot.”

Prior to being moved to the new facility, each cow was fitted with a collar and a transponder. The transponder sends information to a computer for the Middendorfs to review. Among the data collected includes cow activity and the number of visits to the robot. The transponder is also used when a cow enters the milker, indicating which cow it is and whether it can be milked. If it is not time for the cow to be milked, it will be refused and let out of the robot.

Each morning and evening, Ben and Julie start with a list of cows that need to be guided to the robot. They also tend to the special need and fresh cow pen before cleaning stalls. Finally, they check and clean the robots, and change filters, as needed.

Besides mixing and distributing feed every day, Steve also spends time reviewing reports to help him pinpoint possible sick cows or cows to be bred.

Just five months in, the Middendorfs have noticed a dramatic improvement in their herd. 

“Our cows really took off,” Steve said. “We have a really good nutrition program and have gained 10-12 pounds of milk per cow. Our herd average has come back some from the transition.”

From what he can tell so far, Steve understands how farmers can get increased herd averages in robotic facilities. 

“I realize now you have to think of this as more of a system rather than an easier way to milk cows,” Steve said. “Cows get to do what they want all day long. They have comfort in a climate-controlled barn and have continuous access to feed. It allows the cows with good genetics to really take off.” 

Julie agreed.

“I’m impressed with how the cows adapt and do their own thing,” she said. 

Ben also appreciates the new facility as a low-maintenance management system.

“The whole system lets the cows be invisible,” Ben said. “The cows freshen and we don’t see them again until they need to be bred or dried off.”

The Middendorfs’ goal is to now grow herd numbers to 180 cows to reach capacity.

Still early into their transition, Steve and Julie know they have made the best decision for the future of the farm

Labor shortages and the troubling state of the dairy industry are two concerns that steered their decision to a robotic facility.

“Everyone is struggling with labor,” Steve said. “We wanted something we can handle ourselves.”

Steve feels the efficiencies of a robotic facility will help the family farm remain competitive without having to milk more cows or run more land. 

“That was my only concern going into this,” Steve said. “We haven’t been in this barn long enough to know for sure, but I think this will set us up to be efficient enough and produce enough to compete with larger farms.” 

As the next generation readies to take the reigns, Ben, and perhaps his sister, Leah, remain undaunted by the challenges the industry currently has. The new robotic facility offers encouragement for future generations.

“This is a step in the right direction for our farm,” Ben said. “I think, for us, this was the best decision we could’ve made.”