‘The race against the clock is over’
Just a few kilometres from the head office of BouMatic Robotics in Emmeloord, in Rutten, lies the farm belonging to Frans van Aart and his family. Frans (57) runs the company on his own; his wife Thecla (51) works four days a week as a psychological nurse. Daughters Cariene (28), Sjanna (24) and Inge (20) live and work or study in Enschede, Leiden and Groningen respectively. The only ‘descendant’ who regularly works on the dairy farm is son Marijn (25). He lives just a few minutes away in Marknesse and works as a Technical Dealer Manager for BouMatic Robotics – quite handy really!
Transferring to the use of a milking machine was vital for Frans van Aart. “I had to stop milking as a result of eczema. Hiring someone in to do the task is simply not financially feasible so a choice had to be made: close the company or buy a milking machine. I began to investigate the latter.” His quest led him to BouMatic Robotics, who he had heard were looking for a farmer to trial a new product: the MR- S1™, a single stall. Frans continues: "We chatted at length and the representative showed us what they had, even though at the time it wasn’t very much.” His wife Thecla adds: “We’d actually been able to see a prototype – behind closed doors – which was being used by a farmer who was soon stopping milking. He was processing just eight or so cows a day through the milking machine. This was nothing compared to our seventy or so, but it was a start.”
The decision-making process regarding the robot and which one to buy took an unexpected turn when one of their sons got involved. Thecla: “While we were having our first discussions at home with BouMatic Robotics, we were suddenly given a few new options. Our son Marijn has just graduated from the Van Hall Institute and was travelling around New-Zealand. We knew he had applied for a job with a rival company that manufactured milking machines and Frans said at the time: “It strikes me as a bit strange that we will be trialling a machine while the competitor is sleeping in the same house.’ He then added bluntly: "Perhaps we ought to have a word…” Frans quickly explains: “This was not a condition of my choice of company though. Our son had had to prove himself like anyone else. I was just thinking practically and BouMatic Robotics was very open to this.”
Their son began as a test engineer at BouMatic Robotics in September 2010. “The fact that he knew how the machine was manufactured and worked was quite reassuring”, says Thecla. However, Frans adds: “It was no guarantee. The machine was the first of its type that the company had made. It could all have gone wrong and they may have had to come and dismantle it all again. Then I would have had a massive problem…”
With hindsight, they admit that the choice to use the first BouMatic Robotics milking machine was a huge gamble. Even so, they prefer to call it ‘a great challenge': “We felt like pioneers”.
The deciding factor for Frans was his faith in the company. “My old milking equipment was supplied by the sister company BouMatic and I had faith in the people that had developed this stall. “And sometimes”, he shrugs, “you just have to take a bit of a gamble. Afterwards, several colleagues said to me: “I can’t believe you dared to do it!” and admitted that they never would have had the courage to be the very first. But, there you go, every machine has to be trialled by someone. We knew that the knowledge was there. And when we saw the prototype, I was very impressed by what they company had managed to achieve in a very short time. You need to be a certain type of person to be a trial farmer; you must have confidence in your own cows and also in the staff at BouMatic Robotics. I had both.”
It all turned out fine but it was pretty stressful when the MR-S1™ was installed in the barn in January 2011. “It was a bit of a rigmarole”, laughs Frans. “Every day we had at least three men from BouMatic Robotics wandering around, checking that everything worked, what had to be modified and so on. Luckily, we didn't have any significant problems: we didn't lose any cows as a result of the transfer.” It was very much about pioneering though, explains Thecla: “Frans had to figure out how many cows he could start with, for example. The original numbers were just too high so we had to take a few cows back into the old milking barn. But, you know, it’s all about getting used to things for the farmer and the cows when you’re trying out a new product. With these three unknown quantities, you sometimes just have to make a start. But it all worked out quite quickly. It was a very special moment when the machine automatically connected to the first cow.”
In order to stay ahead of the competition, the use of the new milking system had to stay top secret. Nobody knew what was being trialled in the Van Aart barn. Frans recalls: “My colleagues knew that we were considering a new milking machine and sometimes said: ‘It’s taking you ages to make your decision!” But we’d actually been testing for ages”, he laughs as he reminisces. They had to take the odd risk with visitors, adds Thecla: “We told any suppliers that had to go into the barn, such as the artificial insemination people or the vet, that they were not allowed to discuss what was in the barn. The responsibility is yours, we said; we will not check up on you but if this leaks out we will know who spilled the beans…”
But it all went just fine and, in May, the first test machine was replaced by two new ones. “At that time I had seventy cows, too many for one milking machine", explains Frans. “I now have 85 and can expand, with two stalls, to between 100 and 120. This vision of the future was already in my head when I opted for this system. There were no major problems even when the new stalls were being installed. It was a good job too because, as of a certain moment, there’s no turning back. We kept our old milking barn up and running for a while but dismantled it in July. Maintaining two systems is just impossible and we had to move in this direction.”
Of course, a few modifications had to be made in the beginning. When Frans wanted a separate feed box for high energy food, for example, it first had to be developed. Thecla adds: “That’s what happens when you work with technology that's not yet fully developed; it costs a little more time. You need a certain amount of patience and an ability to put up with things. But that is also where the charm of pioneering lies; sometimes you just have to wait a while before everything is exactly how you want it. It all worked out in the end.”
They both stress that they never seriously doubted having decided to take on the challenge. Thecla: “We never doubted our decision but every dairy farmer who changes to automated milking has to change his working methods too. After the first ‘honeymoon’ period, of course, you have moments when you do wonder what you’ve done. Particularly when you’re really tired during the intensive start phase when you’re faced with a 24-hour cycle. There were times when we’d really had enough.” Frans adds: “That's only natural; it's the same with so many things in life. But I never thought that I’d made the wrong decision. Of course, we were in the fantastic position of having someone here at all times for any problems. The test team were always on hand and our son is an engineer. So no, I never had any regrets.”
Now, they can reminisce about and experience the changes that have come with the milking machines. Frans sums it up: “I am more flexible in terms of my work. I also save on labour; I can save several hours each day. It’s not that I no longer have to do anything; there's always plenty to do on a farm. But I can divide my time up for myself now, and I don’t need to spend six hours milking. The race against the clock, which is how it used to be, is now over. Now, I make sure I’m around by seven o’clock when the machines are being cleaned. When I get up, I have a wander around the barn and then go in and eat my breakfast without rushing.” Thecla laughs: “Frans even makes breakfast now! And we eat it together. That never used to be the case because he was busy milking from six to half past seven. Nevertheless, the automatic milking machine hasn't eliminated all of the work. Frans still has to care for a living herd; feeding and checking them, keeping an eye on animal health, working the land and cleaning – he still has plenty of work to keep him busy. The machine just removes the most labour-intensive aspect of milking. In the evening, just like when he wakes up in the morning, Frans has a wander around the barn before he goes to bed.” Frans confirms this and adds: "The tasks that I have to do alongside milking still have to be done but I can be more flexible and plan much better. This weekend, our daughter was celebrating her birthday in Enschede and we wanted to go. If we leave at around eleven in the morning, we can stay out until eleven at night without any problem at all. I still ask a colleague to keep an eye on things but, before, it was practically impossible to go out for a day without hiring a trusted milker.
The only ‘disadvantage’ of the milking machine, if you can call it that, is the fact that the cows no longer pass through Frans’ hands. “You don’t keep a direct eye on the cows anymore. In the old milking barn, you saw them all twice a day every day. Now, I have to seek them out in order to make sure that everything is ok. But, for me, this change was relatively minor because I had not been milking them for a year and a half anyway.” Otherwise, Frans can only come up with benefits. Like milk production for example which, after a minor reduction during the introductory period (which is normal), has now risen from 9,500 to 9,800 litres. Thecla also adds: “An important improvement for me has been the fact that the cows can decide for themselves when they need to be milked. This makes the system much more user-friendly. Previously, they were ‘sought out’ by us twice a day but now they choose the moment themselves. The cows’ movements are determined by the herd. The order which is established is natural and we have noticed that it is now much calmer in the barn.”
Finally, there are a few aspects, which are unique to the BouMatic Robotics system, that Frans would like to highlight. “Firstly, the machine is open. When a cow comes into the stall, it can be seen from two sides. This is important for me but also for the cow. They can see cows to their left and right and feel like they are still in the herd; this makes the cows feel secure.” Thecla expands: “A herd animal is a flighty animal; cows always like to know they can run away. They would be much less willing to walk into a closed system.” The fact that the cows are milked through their back legs is also picked up by Frans as an important factor when choosing the BouMatic Robotics system. Another major advantage is that the MR-S1 can be read out at three different locations: on the machine, on the PC in the office or on your mobile phone. “If you’re not in the barn, you can still see what’s going on with your mobile phone.” And last but not least, he adds: “The plug & play nature of the system meant that the machine fitted into the stall without me having to make any structural adjustments. If I ever need to move to another stall, the machine can be ‘packed up’ and installed elsewhere. This is a huge advantage.”
Frans and Thecla are still clearly delighted with their decision to go with the MR-S1™. With a smile, Thecla finishes: “I am still very proud that we were the first to have the machine in our barn. It was a major event at the time: in the beginning, everyone came to look at it. They arrived in bus-loads and we even had some interest from Canada and America. We even set up a visitor’s book at one point. It is a bit calmer now but it remains a beautiful device. A little miracle!”