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Milking the most of it:This West Texas dairy farm embraces robotic technology to improve the family operation.

Landscapes Winter 2020
Collier family in dairy barn

Photo courtesy of Dairy MAX

The Collier family — from left, Jagger, Jax, Will, Lauren and Tymrie — represent the third and fourth generations on the dairy farm.

Spend 10 minutes with T&K Dairy owner Will Collier and you quickly get the picture. Life on a dairy farm is busy. Even when the days are long, time is short.

“Milking cows for a living is all about efficiency,” says Will. “You have to be efficient, or you won’t last very long.”

That’s why Will and his wife, Lauren, decided to invest in a robotic milking system. And with the help of Capital Farm Credit, the Colliers were able to turn their vision into a reality.

Building a sustainable operation

Located along the dusty edge of Texas’ South Plains near Snyder, the Colliers’ dairy is a third-generation operation. T&K Dairy was started in 1982 by Will’s father and grandfather, Tim and Keith.

Will Collier holding cell phone

Photo courtesy of Dairy MAX

T&K Dairy owner Will Collier stays connected to his operation using a mobile app.

“I grew up on the dairy farm and loved it,” says Will. “It’s hard work, and there’s always something to do. I like the challenge.”

On the Collier farm, you’ll find more than 3,000 dairy cows — Holsteins, Jerseys and crossbreds. There are also hundreds of calves waiting their turn. All of T&K’s milk cows are homegrown. That’s in addition to a farming operation that includes thousands of acres of row crops — cotton, corn, sorghum and wheat.

“Everything works together here,” says Will. “We grow feed for the cows and convert their waste into fertilizer for the crops. We also recycle the water used in our dairy barns. We try to be good stewards of the land.”

Reaching a crossroads in the business

Dairy farmers are often among the first to adopt new technology. Perhaps it’s their commitment to efficiency. For the Colliers, technology and milk management go hand in hand.

Dairy cows wearing collars

Photo courtesy of Dairy MAX

The latest robotics and smart collar technology enable T&K to efficiently monitor its herd of 3,000 dairy cows.

“Several years ago, we made the move to SCR monitoring collars,” says Will. “They’ve helped us better manage herd health and productivity.”

Then, a few years ago, the Colliers hit a critical decision point. They had to quickly determine the future course of their dairy operation.

“We found out we needed to replace our older barn,” says Lauren. “It had major structural issues. I told Will we ought to look into robots.”

Working with a familiar face

“We’d been thinking about robots for a while,” says Will. “This was a chance to improve our operation and make the dairy life more appealing for the next generation.

Dairy barn and herd

Photo courtesy of Dairy MAX

The new T&K barn includes tunnel ventilation, misting systems and back scratchers to keep the herd comfortable.

“I called Capital,” he says. “I’ve been working with them since we started. They know agriculture, and they offer flexible lending options. They understand us.”

Tommy Henderson, branch manager at Capital’s Snyder branch, has known the Colliers for a long time.

“We all went to high school together. Will and I were in FFA,” says Henderson. “He’s been around dairy his whole life. He knows what he is doing.”

Due to the scope of the project, Henderson brought in Bryce Jordan to help. Jordan is one of Capital’s relationship managers for commercial ag, specializing in dairy.

“As a family operator with a strong track record, T&K is an ideal customer,” says Jordan. “When I met with Will, he had done his due diligence and he had a plan. Will knew how the robots could improve his operation.”

Introducing robots to the cows

The new barn and robotic milking system were unveiled in August 2019. It didn’t take long for the cows to acclimate.

Lauren Collier looking at screen

Photo courtesy of Dairy MAX

As cows are milked, Lauren Collier immediately monitors their health and productivity.

“The cows really like the new system. It uses lasers to line-up and attach the milking cups. Everything is very gentle,” says Will. “Once in the stall, the cows are fed pellets, which are like candy to them.”

And the technology is smart. The system evaluates each cow to assess milk availability and overall health. If a cow doesn’t have enough milk, she is released without a pellet reward.

For those that get milked, the system quickly determines milk volume by udder quadrant and estimates the amount of milk to be extracted. The system is self-paced and low stress, and the robots keep the operation moving quickly.

“Most cows are in and out in just a few minutes. The robots are very efficient, and we’ve found that the cows getting milked by the robots are producing more,” says Will.

Enhancing herd lifestyle

The new barn also has a variety of creature comforts designed to increase cow health and well-being while improving milk production.

It includes a misting system and tunnel ventilation to keep temperatures near optimal. There are also water beds for the cows to rest on. The pens even have back scratchers that look like they were borrowed from the local carwash.

Milking cups

Photo courtesy of Dairy MAX

Robots use lasers to line up cups and gently milk the cows.

“In the new barn, we’re able to keep the cows very comfortable,” says Will.

Another benefit of the new technology is the amount of data that can be monitored on each cow.

“Using my phone, I can check in anytime and monitor milk production, nutrition and animal health,” says Will.

Living a dairy good life

As part of a dairy co-op, T&K sends four tanker trucks of milk to be processed every day. This keeps the Collier family and T&K Dairy’s 32 employees busy.

“Will works long days. Typically 10-12 hours,” says Lauren. “But he loves it.”

And at T&K, it’s a full family affair. Lauren manages the books and finances, and the couple’s three school-age children work for the family business in their spare time.

“Raising a family on a farm is a great way of life,” says Will.

Lauren agrees, “if we weren’t dairy farmers, I don’t know who we’d be.”

— Staff

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