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Proposed center to benefit students, dairy farmers and northeast Iowa communities

By Jean Caspers-Simmet

Date Modified: 01/15/2013 4:20 PM

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CALMAR, Iowa —The Iowa Robotic Dairy Center, which will be built at Northeast Iowa Community College in 2013, will provide educational opportunities for college students, the dairy industry and for consumers, said NICC president Liang Chee Wee.

"The Dairy Center is both a teaching farm and a working farm," said Wee. "We are educating students, producers and consumers. We're looking at how learning can take place both inside and outside of the classroom, and technology is a big part of it."

"We're very excited about this project," said John Noel, NICC vice president of finance and administration. "This is viewed as a viable solution to sustaining and encouraging family dairy farms."

Noel sees the robotic milking center as a tool for attracting students as well as a demonstration site for vendors.

Lely, the company that makes the automated milking systems that will be installed at Iowa's Robotic Dairy Center, is based in the Netherlands and has been producing robotic milkers for 20 years, said Mike Fitzgerald, owner of Fitzgerald Inc. of Elkader. Worldwide Lely has 15,000 robots on farms, and just built a manufacturing facility in Pella. Fitzgerald's company has been a Lely dealer for two years.

Fitzgerald has sold 36 robots on 17 farms in the past two years.

"The biggest thing we've seen for families who have put in robots is that their scheduling changes," Fitzgerald said. "Instead of getting up at 4 a.m., milking, doing chores and then doing it all over again at 4 p.m., their schedule is more flexible. They go the barn at 6 or 7 a.m. and look at computer reports to see if there are cows that need to be brought to the milker or if a cow has mastitis. The amount of information generated by these systems completely blows farmers away. You can really pinpoint problems."

Gary Kregel, a Guttenberg dairy farmer and president of the Northeast Iowa Community-Based Dairy Foundation, said his board decided to move ahead on the project because of the support of NICC.

"NICC sees this as a tremendous benefit to students" Kregel said. "This will be a cutting-edge teaching facility. I don't know of another two-year hands-on program that provides the training and opportunity to work with robots and a milking parlor on a working farm."

There was also a lot of industry support for the project, Kregel said.

"This technology is here to stay," Kregel said. "It's important for the Dairy Foundation to have robots available for people to look at. This facility will be open all the time. It will also provide tremendous tourism possibilities."

Fitzgerald has heard many stories from families about being able to take time off to get away or enjoy a Christmas get together without worrying about getting home to milk.

"Of all the products I've sold, this has generated the most gratification and excitement," Fitzgerald said. "Families are so happy. They want to tell their stories about how this has changed their lives."

"The Dairy Foundation and the Dairy Center are an integral part of NICC," said Wee. "Iowa feeds the world, and agriculture is an integral part of NICC. We are in farming country."

Livestock production generates economic activity in Iowa, Kregel said.

"Our goal is to keep livestock, especially dairy, viable and keep our communities active," Kregel said. "The downside of dairy has always been that it ties you down so much. Robots give people the chance not to be so tied down."