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Award-Winning Dairy Makes Wise Investments

Never afraid to embrace change, this farm family takes a giant step into its own future.

By Tharran E. Gaines

| Photos by Ryan Ebert

If a picture is really worth a thousand words, the numerous aerial photos that line the hallway in the Schraufnagel Farms office have a lot to say. The first one in the series—an older black and white photo taken in the early 1950s—shows what many would consider a typical dairy farm of the era, complete with the corn cribs, dairy barn and chicken house. Taken just a few years after Andy Schraufnagel bought the Brownsville, Wisconsin, farm in 1940, the photograph shows the beginning of a legacy that continues to thrive, despite a downward cycle in the dairy industry and the loss of nearly 700 Wisconsin dairies in 2018 alone.

Naturally, as the years progressed, and the second and third generations took over management, the facilities received a few new wrinkles. The photos reflect them, including the removal of some structures and the addition of others, such as upright silos, a free-stall barn for dry cows, a calf barn and a 120-cow free-stall barn for the milking herd.

“I was born in the same house where my wife and I now live,” says 69-year-old Andy Jr., “which means I’ve been on this farm all my life. I started farming with my dad right out of high school on a 50/50 partnership in 1968. Then, in 2008, we formed an LLC that included Aaron and Andy III, and their wives,” adds the second-generation dairyman, in reference to his wife, Bonnie, and two of their four sons.

The farm’s progression hasn’t stopped there. Missing from the last photo in the series is the new addition to the free-stall barn that includes a farm office, a new 3,000-gallon bulk tank and something not so obvious from the air—two new Lely robotic milking systems.

Such growth and the dairy’s operational excellence haven’t gone unnoticed, however. In 2016, Aaron Schraufnagel was recognized with the 2016 young producer award for the National Farmers’ Midwest dairy region. When he presented the award, Jim Heinen, the Schraufnagels’ National Farmers field representative, stated, “Aaron’s association with National Farmers began before he was born, when both of his grandfathers, Andy Schraufnagel Sr. and Carl Reible Sr., joined the National Farmers Organization in 1962.

“The farm consistently scores 97 or higher on every federal IMS [Interstate Milk Shippers list],” Heinen continued. “Their farmstead is always neat and tidy, and the whole family is respected in the community.”

Big Changes

In addition to the 140-cow milking herd and approximately 110 head of young stock, the Schraufnagels also farm around 750 acres of corn, wheat, soybeans, oats, alfalfa and sweet corn, with most of the corn and alfalfa going to the dairy herd. Plus, they operate a custom farming business that dates back to the 1940s, when Andy Sr. started farming on his own.

Andy III in the dairy.

“Last year we custom planted and harvested 1,672 acres, in addition to our own fields,” says Andy III. “We also do some custom forage harvesting and baling.”

Such a farming operation doesn’t leave a lot of extra time to squeeze in between two milkings a day for around 125 cows. So, the family made a significant change and went straight from milking in a stanchion barn to the advanced technology of robotic milking systems.

“We were wanting to go to three milkings a day, because we were noticing that a number of cows were leaking milk in between the twice-a-day milkings,” says Andy Jr. “The problem was we already had [our] time and labor involved in moving the cows from the free-stall barn to stanchion barn each time we milked.”

“We tried to find someone who would work part time,” adds Andy III. “We looked all over and couldn’t find anybody that wanted to milk cows.”

So, says Aaron, “We spent nearly three years researching systems,” noting that the family looked at parlors, robots and just about every other option available. “Adding a milking parlor would have been costly on its own, and we’d still have the problem with labor and lack of flexibility. That’s what led us to look at a robotic milking system,” he adds.

Payoff

While family members note that the robotic system doesn’t come without its trade-offs, overall they say it’s proved its value, despite the six-figure investment. “Most important, it gives us a lot more flexibility without the need for extra employees, salaries or benefits,” Aaron says.

Bonnie and Andy Schraufnagel with sons Andy and Aaron.

“Plus, the [robotics] work 24 hours a day, every day. The downside is we’re always on call, because the system calls us on the cell phone if there’s any kind of problem. You never know when the phone is going to ring; and you can’t afford for it to be down for very long.”

The other challenge is training new cows to use the system, which was retrofitted into the free-stall barn. In effect, cows can pass through the robotic machines as often as they like, once they learn that there’s a treat in the form of flavored pellets. However, if they come back in less than five hours, the computer-linked tag on their neck sends them on through without any reward.

“The whole herd currently averages 2.8 milkings per cow [per day],” says Aaron. “The lowest [for one cow] is once, and the most has been five times in one day,” he adds, joking that the feed dispensed while they’re being milked smells like SweeTARTS. “Between the extra milkings and the ability to adjust the amount of feed each cow receives, we’re averaging 15 pounds per cow more per day than we were before we installed the robots. The herd average is now 95 pounds per cow per day,” he adds, pointing to the computer screen that monitors production.

“The other thing that’s nice is the system allows us to make better management decisions about herd health, genetics, etc.,” Andy III adds. “The computer tells us everything about each cow through her tag, so we know her daily production, days in lactation, average for 365 days and nearly everything else you’d want to know. So we know when to cull a cow and which cows to breed with the best bulls. It also lets us spot problems a lot quicker.”