Farming for the Future
“If you would have asked us years ago if we would have robots today, we would have laughed and told you no,” recalled Stephen Roerick, co-owner of Roerview Dairy.
In 1983 Roger and Diane Roerick, first generation farmers, started milking 25 cows. Always focused on building toward the future, Roger put up the first freestall barn in 1992 and doubled the herd to 50 cows.
“I always had to be willing to change to make sure the farm was profitable,” Roger shared. “If you’re not changing, you’re going backwards.”
Fast forward through a few other farm expansions to 2009 and Roger and Diane’s sons Stephen and Craig decided to come back to the farm. Stephen’s wife Amanda and Craig’s wife Sarah work off the farm, but are key to supporting the future of the farm. The couple also has two daughters, Kaitlyn and Sara who remain closely connected to the farm while holding other employment. Additionally, Roger and Diane have 11, soon to be 12, grandchildren who enjoy spending time outdoors and learning about farm life.
Today the farm milks 215 cows with three robots and uses a robotic calf feeder, manure scraper and feed pusher. The family grows about 900 acres of grass, alfalfa, corn, soybeans and small grains. And built a contract broiler barn to help diversify income streams.
A few bumps in the road
“We had a blueprint for the parlor barn and I asked the boys how they planned to find all the help needed to milk more cows in a parlor,” Diane shared. “It was a blessing in disguise because we actually got turned down for financing the new parlor and we had to start considering other options which led us to robots.”
Around this time, minimum wage increases and lower interest rates made the robots an attractive option.
“We started looking at robots initially to balance labor needs,” Stephen shared. “But now we see there are so many other benefits like feed efficiencies that we didn’t previously consider.”
A Transition Plan
“One of the requirements from Compeer to finance our robot barn is that we had a transition plan in place, which we didn’t at the time,” Stephen recalled. “We attended our first transition planning session and kept hearing them say don’t wait until it’s too late because a good transition plan takes many years.
The family shared that the transition plan as it started is not how it looks today. It is an evolving document that changes as the farm changes, but always guides the future as Craig and Stephen take on more financial ownership.
“The biggest thing is that we wanted to protect all our kids,” Roger shared. “I always required Craig and Stephen to have some financial skin in the game if they wanted to make changes, but we weren’t recording every financial detail.”
Advice for Other Farmers
The Roericks have learned a lot along the way and have advice for others who are considering robots.
“It is really important to do your homework,” Craig said. “You really have to make sure everyone is onboard – your wives and any partners in the farm. Your role on the farm will likely change and you have to open to adapting to this new tool.”
Roger added, “Any big expansion costs a lot of money whether you’re looking at a parlor or robot barn. So really consider what labor you have available and what will work best for your family in the years to come.”
What's more, barn design is key to how you and the cattle adjust to robots.
“Don’t be afraid to do something that someone else isn’t doing,” Stephen shared. “No one local had the type of barn we were looking to build, they said we’d have to fly across the ocean to see something similar. We liked the concept and made a few tweaks and while there are probably a few things we’d change, overall we’re really happy with the set up.”
On the lighter side, the Roericks shared that your schedule will change as well.
“I used to get up about 4:00 am to milk cows, but with the robots I now get out to the barn a little after 6 and I feel like I’m late to work,” Roger said with a chuckle.
The family is very happy with the decision to use robots and in a true testament to that statement, they are looking to add more in the future.