Agriculture technology in a dairy operation
Tilla-Bay Farms owner Kurt Mizée, left, relies on his CHS feed consultant, Michael Lummus, to ensure fresh feed is delivered on a regular basis to keep the robotic feeding system running at his Tillamook, Ore., dairy operation.
By Jennifer Chick
If Kurt Mizée’s dairy barn were stripped down to digital code, each of his Holsteins would be made up of thousands of data points — 127 new ones every day, to be exact, collected by each cow’s neck transponder.
Every point has a story to tell about that cow, including her bloodline, current production and future potential. Mizée analyzes that data to help him manage and optimize his Tilla-Bay Farms dairy operation near Tillamook, Ore.
Mizée’s farm has been part of the fertile, temperate Tillamook Valley for 104 years. But much has changed since his great-grandfather started the operation with 24 dairy cows, mostly Guernseys.
“My mom will tell you pretty quick about how stubborn the calves were back when she used to feed them,” Mizée says.
As the industry has changed, Mizée has sought out ways to keep operating his dairy in the face of changing dynamics, from challenges in recruiting employees to shifts in consumer needs. He turned to technology and data to shine a light on the best way forward.
In 2010, Mizée and his dad, Bart, were looking for a way to balance work and personal demands as their operation had outgrown their milking parlor. They were investigating a robotic milking system where cows decided when to be milked, rather than being milked on a rigid schedule.
Then in 2011, Mizée’s wife, Wendy, and 8-year-old daughter, Shelby, were killed in a car accident and he was left to raise his son, Ryan, then 5. The need for work-life balance suddenly became even more pressing. (Learn more about his Act in Kindness Project in honor of Wendy and Shelby.)
“I was able to stay in dairy farming because of robotics,” Mizée says.
First, they installed Lely robotic milking machines, the first robotic dairy milking system in the western U.S. As other dairies adopted robotic technology and Mizée noticed the need for a team to service the units and help farmers transition to the new system, he launched a business to install and service Lely robotic systems. He also kept testing and adding new technology to his operation: a robotic feeding system, then robotic calf feeders followed by a computer feeder system for close-up dry cows. The next addition, planned for this winter, will be a vacuum robot to clean the barn.
Managing by phone
All the robotics run from a cellphone. The Lely Vector Roundtable, a mini mixer wagon, mixes, distributes and pushes feed to cows.
Mizée gets much of his feed from the CHS feed mill in Tillamook. Several times a week, a CHS semi delivers TMG (total mixed grain) to the farm. A silage block cutter portions out forage and distributes it into sections in the farm’s feed kitchen, where feed is stored and selected for mixing. A robot feed grabber on an overhead track selects feed and forage from specific spots in the feed kitchen and drops it into a mixing and feeding robot, a self-contained battery-operated vehicle that prepares and delivers feed to cows according to a predetermined plan.
The robot delivers 18 to 20 loads per day of four rations for far-off dry cows, close-up dry cows, lactating cows and cows with special needs. Cows are sorted into pens based on their needs and software relays the pen information to the robot, which adjusts ration delivery based on how many cows are in the pen.
“Once you’ve run with a robotic herd, you will never go back,” Mizée says. “Still, when using robots, you don’t want to run out of feed because that has a way of happening in the middle of the night and then the system calls you. So I tell my CHS rep, ‘Don’t run me out.’ I love that we can count on really great service to make sure that doesn’t happen. And feed is always fresh, so it flows well through the system.”
While he continues to promote the use of robotics, Mizée sold his Lely installation business in 2021. He says the business was set to double in size and he didn’t have the capacity to keep that going while also managing his own operation.
Robotics have become a recruiting tool for Mizée, who manages the operation with two full-time employees. His newest team member, Es Santiago, began working at the farm about 10 months ago. Santiago says what excited him about the opportunity was the technology associated with Tilla-Bay Farms. He had worked on dairy operations for five years, putting in up to 20 hours per day for operations as large as 35,000 head, and was looking for something more sustainable.
“It definitely has made a huge difference,” Santiago says. “I finally feel like I have a life outside of my job.”
With the monitoring and automation that comes from Tilla-Bay Farms robotics, Santiago says he now works seven to eight hours per day and has the flexibility to leave for a family appointment, knowing an app will alert him if something needs attention.
The data points produced through Mizée’s operation help guide his farm management decisions. Even before a calf is born, data is an important part of the equation, helping Mizée determine which heifer calves will be kept to build the herd and which will be sold as beef calves.
“The goal is to use the data we get from the mother and the genomics we add through artificial insemination to only breed the types of calves we need to maintain our herd,” Mizée says.
The data also helps him gauge cow comfort, which is important to Tillamook County Creamery Association, where Mizée sells his milk. Tillamook is committed to thriving farms and healthy, comfortable and productive cows.
Mizée is dedicated to providing the best environment for his cows, too. “You can’t make milk if cows aren’t comfortable.”
It starts with milk
Kurt Mizée and most dairy producers in Tillamook County are members of the Tillamook County Creamery Association (TCCA). Their high-quality milk goes into exceptional dairy products that have helped the cooperative build a solid reputation and growing brand presence since it was founded in 1909.
TCCA is one of the oldest continuously operating dairy cooperatives in the world. The focus on quality is evident in TCCA’s commitment to stewardship, ensuring the milk used in Tillamook products comes from healthy, comfortable, productive cows. TCCA supports its farmer-owners with generous milk prices, premiums for quality and on-farm support.
“At TCCA, our heritage and commitment to exceptional cow care started the day the first dairy farmers arrived in Tillamook County,” says Kate Lott, a veterinarian and director of farm services and engagement, TCCA. “Farmers are using the latest tools and technology to improve cow care and enable more efficiencies on farm. I’m excited about what the future holds, from cow health trackers to new vaccines to advanced equipment.”
Most consumers of Tillamook dairy products are far removed from farms, so TCCA invests in educating consumers about increasingly tech-driven dairy farms. Tillamook Creamery was rebuilt in 2018 to create a better educational experience for visitors.
Jersey cows have been the face of TCCA since 1958, when Tillie of Tillamook popped up in ads as the creamery’s spokescow. The breed is known to produce milk exceptionally rich in butterfat, and Jersey Journal reported in 2020 that Jersey milk is becoming more nutrient-dense every year, especially in protein.
That milk, and all the milk TCCA receives from its members and other suppliers, drives the popularity of Tillamook cheeses and extra creamy ice cream and butter.
Check out the full C magazine with this article and more.