By Abigail O’Farrel
“My name is Abigail O’Farrell. I am a fourth generation dairy farmer with my husband, Michael O’Farrell, my brother Reuben Nelkie, and parents, Charles and Julie Nelkie. Our farm is Lemajru Dairy Farm, LLC. We milk 115 registered Holstein in our two Lely astronaut automatic milking systems. It has taken me a while to finally write this piece as life for our family farm has been hectic. Farming is a business but it is much more than a business, it is a way of life.
My Great Grandparents, William and Esther Rau established this farm in 1939 according to the deed records. Grandpa, Leon, told us it was 1938 so that is what is painted on our silo. We are guessing they moved here in 1938. William and Esther had farmed in multiple areas around down town West Branch, but they had to keep moving because the town grew. Where our farm is currently located is the first place they didn’t have to move from. My Grandparents, Leon and Evelyn Rau started their young married life off in Flint, Michigan. They had five young daughters when my Grandpa quit his job at the Buick Foundry to move up to the old home farm because “the foundry was going to kill him.” He raised those five daughters as well as a sixth who was born 14 years after her next oldest sister on the farm. He never expected that the farm would go on; women did not operate farms on their own at the time. My Mom, Julie, met my Dad, Charles at the local DHIA summer BBQ. The story goes, she was leading the giveaway calf off of the truck when my Dad noticed her and asked Duane Reinke for her contact information. They were married within the next year and my Dad moved to farm to work with my Grandpa because his own brother was the owner and operator of his family farm in Tawas. I have three younger brothers; Emory, Reuben, and Martin. I chose to come back to the farm after leaving to go to college at NC State University. One could say I literally “ran away” to come back. I wanted to work with cows and I wanted to raise my family on the farm. Michael is my brother’s childhood friend who came back from his first tour of Iraq and needed a place to stay. That place to stay was my house. Farming does an amazing job at helping veterans assimilate back into society and find peace within their own being after war. Long story short, I married Michael and we know have four children, Jakob, Leon, Oliver and Victor and we are raising them on the farm.
The idea to put in robots came in when I was pregnant with Jakob. I was covering milking cows for the employee who had fall “buck fever”. I mused that if I had to milk cows pregnant and nauseous that I might as well have robots. Michael and I began researching robotic milking systems and touring farms. We brought our findings to the family and we decided with the approval of all of the generations that we needed to purchase robots. Grandpa Leon’s final piece of instruction to my Mom was to get the loan for the robots and on February 13, 2013 that wish came true. We turned off our old Boumatic double four herringbone parlor and turned on our new Lely Astronauts.
The journey hasn’t been perfect or easy. Upgrading to robots meant that we not only upgraded our milking facility, but we also had to adapt to a new way of managing cows. We don’t round up our cows twice or three times a day to milk. We “fetch” cows twice a day. Our fetch cows usually require extra attention because they are new fresh, lame, or sick. We milk 24X7 and break downs can occur 24X7. A properly balance diet is paramount, one could say that feed drives robot cows. They need a highly palatable pellet to entice them to come in for milking and a complementary bunk feed ration. If the feed is not correct, working with a robotic milking system becomes drudgery. This was the difficult lesson of 2016. The ration was not balanced correctly, the pellets were not palatable and the cows did not want to come in and be milked. While most members of our family have adapted and love to use the new technology, it would be wrong of me to say that everyone has adapted readily to the use of robotic technology. The installation of the robots has decreased our physical work load but it has displaced my Dad’s routines; he struggles with the use of the new technology and may never be able to adeptly help us operate the robots. The general consensus is we would not go back. Our overall lifestyle as well as our cows health has improved.
Reflecting on each of the generations that have embrace dairy farming as their way of life, change has occurred. Embracing the new technology of the day is part of remaining current as a business. Embracing the new technology of the time to improve one’s lifestyle will continue, because farming is a lifestyle and we will continue to work smarter not harder. This cycle will likely continue as long as the next generation in the wings wishes to continue to fly with the farm.”
Special thank you to Lemajru Dairy and Abigail O’Farrel for sharing their story.