Automatic feeder (copy)

Greg Lueth, a Valmetal salesman at Wisconsin Farm Technology Days just south of Eau Claire, demonstrated a safety device on a robotic feed pusher that can be programmed to travel around a barn and push food toward cows.

EAU CLAIRE — For the owners of Nellie Holsteins, the shift toward greater use of technology was a matter of economics.

The Eau Claire County dairy farmers wanted to grow their 56-cow operation enough to support two generations but also ensure they could run it themselves.

To accomplish those seemingly competing goals, Derrick and Miranda Nelson and Derrick’s father, Doug, decided about three years ago to expand to 180 cows and make a major investment in technology.

The Nelsons built a four-row free-stall barn that is big enough for drive-through feeding just down the road from Doug’s home farm.

To make it manageable for just three people to do all the work, they lean on some futuristic-sounding equipment including a robotic feed pusher, an automated alley scraper to remove manure and activity trackers to monitor the health and movement of cows, Miranda said Wednesday at Wisconsin Farm Technology Days.

Nellie Holsteins, a fifth-generation farm just south of Eau Claire that was founded in 1895, was one of the stops on the local farm tours that attracted about thousands of people to last week’s Farm Technology Days in Eau Claire County. The farm show, hosted by Huntsinger Farms, included 522 exhibitors from 26 states.

Crowds at the farm show exceeded expectations, with publicity committee chairwoman Lee Caraher estimating that the three-day event already reached its expected total of 45,000 attendees on Wednesday, the second day of the show.

“It’s been awesome so far,” Caraher said Wednesday. “We’ve just heard great things.”

As for the Nelsons, they were forward-looking enough that Nellie Holsteins was the first dairy in the United States to use the Valmetal Pro-Feed, a self-guided machine that uses an augur to lift and push feed in the cows’ direction.

The $31,000 computerized device, which uses magnets to follow a regular path among the stalls, replaces a person performing the task with a skid steer multiple times a day, said Greg Lueth, a salesman at Valmetal’s exhibit at Farm Technology Days.

“That’s especially nice at nighttime,” said Lueth, who equated the robotic feed pusher to a giant Roomba robotic vacuum.

The Nelsons feed the cows only once a day, but the feed pusher ensures the animals have food within reach every two hours. And it doesn’t take the cows long to associate the device with food.

“It draws the cows up to eat, so it helps with production,” Miranda said.

The animals also wear activity collars, which she jokingly calls “Fitbits for cows,” that send the farmers health protection alerts when a cow isn’t eating or moving enough.

“It’s an additional management feature to help us catch a sick cow before there are any physical signs,” Miranda said, adding that the collars also indicate when a cow is in heat before it would be visually detectable.

Not only does the early intervention get animals healthy sooner, but it also improves productivity, she said.

In addition, a self-propelled, programmable alley scraper clears manure from the barn every three to four hours so the Nelsons don’t have to spend time and energy on that undesirable job.

The automation is particularly important at a time when many businesses are struggling to find an adequate supply of workers.

“The whole country’s eyes are opened to the labor shortage now, but there’s always been a labor shortage in ag and I think there always will be,” said Miranda, 25, who has earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees in dairy science. “This way we’re able to maintain our labor force between the three of us.”

Her hope is that putting a spotlight on the technology used at Nellie Holsteins during the tours may help other farm families facing similar challenges and raise awareness about modern agricultural practices among nonfarmers.

“Because we’re so close to the city of Eau Claire, the tours brought a lot of people from the city to showcase agriculture and give them a little bit of an idea of where their food comes from,” Miranda said. “I think it’s good for them to see we’re not the stereotypical type of farmers carrying pitchforks and wearing bib overalls.”