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Horst Farm

Horst Farm Adopts Robotic Milker

Name: Vernon and Luanne Horst

Family: three daughters, Carmen; Beckee, married to Rodney Denlinger; and Lachelle, married to Brian Hackman; two granddaughters, Johannah and Sophia

Location: Franklin County, Pa.

The phone rings, and Franklin County dairy farmer Vernon Horst excuses himself to answer. “That was Roberta,” he says when he returns. And then he adds with a smile, “My robot.”

What place does a robot have on a dairy farm? The Horst family knows first-hand the answer to that question.

Bringing Technology Home

Vernon and his wife, Luanne, have come a long way in milking cows from when they first purchased the farm from Vernon’s father in 1981. Always top-quality care-takers of their Holstein cows, in 2007 the couple learned of a new technology that would soon change their lives – robotic milkers.

Vernon and Luanne spent a year and a half researching and touring other dairy farms using robotic milkers. They even traveled to the Netherlands to visit the factory that makes the robots, learning more about the technology. In the end, the Horsts decided that bringing a robotic milker onto their small family dairy farm was the right choice for them.

“The robotic milker gives me the opportunity to serve the dairy industry and the community by freeing me from milking my cows twice a day,” Vernon says. “That freedom also allows me to spend more time with my family.

As construction of the robotic milker began, the Horsts decided to upgrade the barn where their 60 cows spend most of their time. Significant improvements were made, including increasing the size of each cow’s stall and bringing in sand to cushion and cover the stall beds.

Vernon also built a more comfortable place for the cows to eat, including rubber mats for them to stand on and smooth ceramic tiles from which to eat. And weather permitting, the cows have access to the pasture a few hours each day.

All of these comfort changes allow the cows to spend more time focusing on what they do best – producing high-quality, nutritious milk.

The Robot Makes Phone Calls

This is where the robotic milker shines; the cows get to choose their own milking schedule! The robot even gives the cows a small treat each visit – sweetened pellet feed. Each cow can be milked every 4.5 hours in a 24-hour period. The Horst cows average 2.5 visits per day to the robotic milker.

Each time a cow is milked, the robot records information on her health, milk and activities. Vernon reviews this information one to two times per day to ensure each of his cows is healthy and content.

And, as we already know, the robot can make phone calls, as “Roberta.” This technology gives the robot the ability to alert Vernon immediately of any problems with the machine or the cows. Typically the alarm is for small changes that need to be made – a filter to change or a cow trying to go through too many times.

Producing High Quality Feed

With the robotic milker in place, the Horsts can focus their attention on growing high-quality food for their cows. The farm grows corn, alfalfa, soybeans and grass hay. After harvesting in the fall, the crops they are combined in a specialized, nutritionally perfect ratio called silage that is fed to the cows all year long.

The Horsts hire a local operator for field work, which includes planting the crops in the spring and harvesting them in the fall. Because cropping equipment is expensive to purchase and maintain, this is a more cost-effective way for the Horsts to grow feed on their 145 acres.

Vernon and Luanne also work with local seed dealers to test new corn seed genetics by growing several corn demonstration plots on the farm. This allows the dealers to check the viability of each new seed and helps them showcase the finished crop to other farmers in the area. Just like humans, plants can combine different genetic material for different crops. Changing a corn plant’s genetics can lead to a hardier growing plant, or a plant with a certain nutrient – many different options that help dairy farmers feed their cows better quality food.

Keeping Family and Heritage First

Vernon’s parents, H. Blaine and Alice Mae, moved to the historical Franklin County farm and house in 1968 with Vernon and his sister, Virginia. The barn, built in 1820, is constructed of stone and brick; the house was also built around the same time. Since making the farm their home, Vernon and Luanne have continued the process of preserving the barn and house.

The Horsts have three daughters – Carmen, who has a master’s of divinity degree and spent three years in El Salvador teaching farmers sustainable agriculture practices; Beckee, who is married to Rodney Denlinger, a stone/brick mason, and has two daughters, Johannah and Sophia; and Lachelle, who is married to Brian Hackman, a residential counselor, and works as a dorm advisor in Lancaster.

“All three of my daughters spent time overseas, and during our visits to them, my eyes were opened to how safe our food and water supply is in the U.S.” Vernon says. “We realized how important it is to keep our agricultural infrastructure in order to continue to provide safe food to our neighbors.”

Staying Involved

Even with his busy days on the farm, Vernon dedicates his time to several cooperatives, including serving as a unit representative for Land O’Lakes, the dairy co-op that buys his milk, and serving as long-time president and director of the Cumberland Valley Cooperative, an agronomy and feed cooperative. Vernon is the treasurer for the Mid-Atlantic Council of Cooperatives, which offers programs to educate young people on how co-ops benefit farmers. Vernon is the chairman of the Mid-Atlantic Dairy Association’s board of directors, serves on the Pennsylvania Dairy Promotion Program farmer board and is a member of the United Dairy Industry Association board. The couple is also active in their church, Pleasant View Mennonite.