In the farthest outpost in the Netherlands, the Midwolda in Groningen, lives the Brink family: Han and Irma and their sons Jordy, Rick and Steffan . They man the farming company that they took over from Irma’s parents in 2001. Han, who grew up on a farm, runs the dairy section, helped by Irma who also takes care of the children and the runs the household. There is a real eye-catcher in the barn: the MR-D1™, or a double stall.
Just like many other BouMatic Robotics’ customers, Han and Irma came to a point at which they had to make a decision. “Our milking barn was due for replacement”, begins Han. “The last renovations took place in 1990 but it was due for another update. My brother was already using a milking machine and had recommended it to us. He warned us that it would mean a big change but that his had saved him a huge amount of time. Just like us, he also had children playing football and explained how the machine had freed him up to go and watch them play. “And if you have visitors on Sunday”, he added, “you don’t need to go out to work at half past three; you can just carry on enjoying their company!” It sounded very tempting. I had also noticed that I was having problems with my back and shoulders on a more regular basis after milking. A milking machine was becoming a serious option.”
But it was also a significant purchase, so the Brink couple needed plenty of information. “We first went to take a look at another milking machine in Zoeterwoude one afternoon. We came away very impressed. We were amazed by the technology but also how quickly the cows got used to the stalls", says Han. Irma reminisces: “There was a minor fault with a teat-cup and, as a result, the door of the machine room had to open. Once the cow heard the hissing noise that this caused, she walked out of the stall. When she heard the noise that meant the stall was working again, she walked straight back in. She knew exactly what she had to do! And the cows had picked it all up incredibly quickly." She laughs: “We sometimes even see our cows talking to the machine, as if they’re saying: ‘Can I be milked now?’ That is a funny sight.”
They made their decision quickly: it had to be a double stall. We have ninety cows and the barn is big enough for one hundred. This is a significant milking effort; we produce 9,500 litres. A single stall would have been too small; it can handle up to a maximum of sixty cows. So we had to choose between two single or one double stall. The shape of the stall played a huge role in our decision”, explains Han. “We have a two-plus-two row stall or, in other words, two rows of stalls on each side. The structure is wide but not all that long. The BouMatic Robotics’ representative explained to us that it would be quite tight for two single stalls. A double stall was the perfect solution. And, also quite important, it was cheaper than two individual stalls.”
What really appealed to them about the system from BouMatic Robotics was the fact that the cows are milked between the back legs. Irma: “All of the other milking machines that we looked at did this from the side and the cow finds this trickier. Once the teat-cups are connected, the arm moves out from under the cow. We feel that’s better for them.” But there was something else that appealed to them, explains Han: “This is a sturdy machine, made of stainless steel. The stall is a complete unit; it comprises a roof and a surrounding wall. You can just put it in the barn and plug it in; it’s known as plug & play. If we’d have gone for another brand, our barn would have required more substantial modification. This model is also very reliable. You need a machine that can function 23 hours a day and not break down. If it does break down, however, you have to be able to fix it very quickly. That is exactly how it is with this machine. If you take a look into the machine room and see the equipment, you’ll also see that it is built in a very simple and logical manner; even a child could install a new hose.”
Enticing the cows
By the end of February, the time had come: the MR-D1™ was installed in the barn. Irma remembers it well. “It was a bit crazy for a few days, when the machine was being installed. All of the preparatory conduits and milk pipes were connected and that weekend, we started to use it as a feeding stall to try to entice the cows in. Then, the Brinks discovered another significant advantage of a double stall, explains Han: “If one cow is already installed, another one can easily move in on the other side. This is handy because you need a brave cow to make that first step. But cows like to stand side-by-side so once the first one has gone in, the others quickly follow. We notice this after cleaning too, when the machine starts up again.”
Getting the cows used to the machine actually went very well according to Han and Irma who are clearly relieved by this. “Within two days, two-thirds of the cows were going into the stalls by themselves to eat their food. The process was quite quick.” Han laughs and continues: "We pushed the rest into the stall one Sunday so that they could figure out what they were supposed to do. On Monday, we milked the cows once again with the old milking barn and then that afternoon we used the stall for all of the cows. The first time, we attached the teat-cups by hand. We started around half past one and had estimated that we would be done by half past ten that night with the last of our eighty cows. However, they’d all gone through by eight o’clock! We then began at half past three in the morning with the next round.” Irma admits: "The first few days are very intensive; we spent more time in the stall than outside it. The cows, us, our family and friends: everybody had to get used to the new process. But it all happened so fast; ultimately, we took it in turns to stay in the stall over two nights. The cows then had to do it for themselves and they took to it very well. The BouMatic Robotics' dealer warned us that the initial phase would be incredibly challenging. But, with hindsight, it wasn't too bad at all. We actually enjoyed it; we even set up the garden table behind the machine. We sat there drinking coffee and eating soup while we kept an eye on everything. We are genuine cow people and love to be in the barn with them."
Close the door!
“The garden table is still there”, laughs Irma: “Sometimes a visitor will go and sit in one of the garden chairs behind the machine and watch how it all works. Recently, a neighbour made his way into the machine room and commented: ‘That thing’s not doing anything!’ But you mustn’t open the door; he stopped in his tracks. I have already ordered a sticker to put on the door that indicates that the door has to stay closed at all times. The fact that everything comes to a standstill when the door opens is good security; especially if you have three children running around. We taught them this straight away: do not open the door!” Roaring with laughter, she continues: “They still get up to mischief but they do not open the door - even though they love the machine. But what we did and still do is very exciting! They often had to stay over at school when we had the machine installed because all of our time was taken up with the new situation. And we didn’t want our decision to opt for this machine to be jeopardised before everything had been sorted properly. But you can’t keep anything secret from small children. You can tell them that they can’t talk about something but they simply have to chatter about whatever they know as soon as they get into school. That is why we kept them at arm's length during the decision-making phase."
Eating breakfast together
Now everyone can be told: Han and Irma are overjoyed with their milking machine and are delighted to say that it has changed their lives. The cows are calmer in the barn and this has been noted by many a visitor. And then there’s the increased milk production because the cows can be milked more frequently. But the machine has also had an impact on a personal level. Han says: “Nowadays, I can eat breakfast at a quarter to eight with the children six days a week. That was never the case before because I had to milk the cows, feed the calves, clean the stalls and so on from six o’clock to around nine. That was just the morning routine, then I would come in to eat and have a coffee at nine and carry on with my work at a quarter to ten. In the afternoon, I worked from half past three to half past six or even later. By then my wife and kids had already eaten; when they were younger I only just had time to give them a quick kiss before they went to bed. Now, I can keep my eye on the time and make sure I eat with them. I don’t have to sit and cut up my meat on my own on Sundays anymore, ha ha.”
And, another important aspect, Han can leave his farm more frequently. “The other day, I was stood on the sidelines at the football match where our sons were playing at a quarter to nine. That would never have been possible before. They also won, so that was a bonus! They love it when dad comes to watch and I love to watch them. I also had a whole day out at a dairy competition in our neighbourhood not so long ago. Previously, I would have had to be home for the milking round, or hire-in a milker. But that costs money. The machine is already paid for, never goes off sick or comes in grumpy and is never late.” As a result of having the machine, Han not only has more time but he can also be much more flexible about the hours he works. He explains: “We recently went to the Mega Pirate Festival not far from here. We'd sent the kids off to a babysitter and we were out quite late. The next morning I checked to make sure that everything was going ok with the machine at about a quarter to six and then went back to bed for an hour or so!”
But enough about the advantages, what are the stall’s disadvantages? Han can’t think of any. “Not yet, but maybe it’s a bit too soon. I have never regretted my decision though. Some people have asked if I miss milking and then say that I can always go and do theirs if I like! Well thanks, but I don’t miss it at all. I have noticed that I work in a different way in relation to the dairy herd. I used to see the cows twice a day in the milking barn and I could quickly see if something was wrong. Now, I have to make a conscious effort to walk through the barn to check that the cows are all ok. But the machine helps me with this too as it accurately notes any deviations in their rhythm.”
“Even though there are no disadvantages, there are two elements of my work that have changed”, says Han. Firstly, he feeds his cows in the evenings instead of the mornings. “This means that they pass via the machine in the evening too and makes the process as efficient as possible. I also spend more time cleaning the stalls; the cows used to all go into the milking stall at the same moment so I could clean them out in one go, in between milking. Now, there are always cows in the stall and I have to come back repeatedly to make sure all the stalls are cleaned. I walk around the cows about four times a day now to check and clean them. But I still save time compared to before.”
“In the surrounding area, the milking robot owned by the Brink family is still quite a novelty”, explains Irma. “There aren’t many of this type of stall yet; we are the first in North Netherlands to use them.” She begins to giggle: “Some neighbours ask how it's going with the 'robot’. Most people think of a metal man that walks around when they hear the word robot. Or they ask if the robot follows the cows around. We then explain that it’s actually the other way around. Many farmers from the surrounding area are also curious and want to see how the milking is done. And that, of course, is no problem; we even had an open-house in June. We are proud of our latest acquisition and are happy to show it off!”