TABOR – If you travel about three miles northeast of Tabor, there is a hillside that is home to the Pechous Dairy. It might not look different from the average dairy operation on the outside, but inside it’s a different story.
Housed inside the walls of the Pechous Dairy’s newly built free-stall barn is a high-tech system of four robots working 24/7 to milk 230 cows an average of 2.8 times per day. The new barn and advanced machinery are investments in the family’s legacy as dairy farmers for future generations.
Having grown up and lived on dairy farms only two miles apart, Bob and Nancy Pechous took over Bob’s parents’ operation in 1980 before getting married in 1981. The couple started with 30 cows in a stanchion barn and had to physically haul their own buckets of milk to the cooler. In 1986, the couple expanded their operation and built a 12-station milking parlor with a pipeline for hauling milk. The upgrade allowed them to gradually begin increasing their herd size to around 125 cows.
“The addition of the milking parlor was great because everything became centralized,” Nancy Pechous said. “We could have six cows on each side. Once we finished milking on one side, we could switch to the other side and rotate in six new cows.”
The Pechous Dairy operated out of its 12-station milking parlor for the next 30 years with help from two hired hands and family support before changing to their current operation.
Out of their three children, only the Pechous’ youngest son, Kyle, decided to join the dairy as a partner. Their oldest son, Justin, operates Pechous Repair in Tabor and their daughter, Jennifer, teaches in Brandon.
“Kyle was adjoined at the hip with Bob since he could walk,” Nancy said. “We knew he was going to be our farmer. He was always helping out at the dairy as soon as he was old enough.”
Kyle obtained a degree in diesel mechanics from Northeast Community College before returning home as a full-time partner in 2005. It was his idea to upgrade to the new robotic milking system in 2016.
“We got to the point where the old barn was falling apart,” Nancy said. “We either needed to repair it or start new. Bob and I were actually thinking about getting out of the dairy business at the time, but Kyle came up with the idea to implement the new robotic system. We decided that we were all in this together and went full speed ahead.”
Construction on the new barn and the installation of the robotic milking system began in January 2016 and finished late last September.
“We are now nine months into the new system,” Nancy said. “For the first three months, we practically lived up in the barn after it was built. That’s how long it took before the cows adjusted to the new system.”
Built with the potential for expansion in mind, the new barn is divided into two main sections capable of housing 120 cows on each side. Both sections are outfitted with access to a feeding trough, back scratchers and bedded stalls. The barn is also outfitted with fans that create a constant five-mile-per-hour breeze that keeps the cows comfortable and the bugs out. Adding to the overall automation of the Pechous Dairy, manure is also automatically scrapped from the floors by a robotic system and pressed into dry bedding to be put on top of the rubber mats that cover the stall floors.
“We built this for future generations,” Bob Pechous said. “We want to keep this dairy going and pass it down to our grandchildren.”
Installed in each section are two fully-automatic milking machines, each with the capability of milking 60 cows. All the cows at the dairy have been trained to come to one of the four milking machines through the use of special protein pellets that are delivered by the robots. When a cow walks into the stall next to a machine, it reads the chip inside of a collar placed around the cow’s neck. The cow is then weighed and fed according to how much milk it produces.
While the cow is feeding, the machine washes each teat and hooks up to them automatically guided by lasers. The system records how much time each cow has been attached to the machine; it even measures down to the exact time that each teat is attached and how much milk each one produced. All the milk is then automatically transported from the machine to the cooler where it waits to be hauled out by truck every other day.
If something were to go wrong with the machine, like a computer glitch or a milking cup getting knocked out of position, the system automatically calls for assistance until someone responds. As an added safety net in case of power outages, the whole dairy is also backed up by a diesel generator to ensure that the system never goes offline and the cows are always milked.
The automated system also offers total monitoring of the herd from an office computer. It notifies the dairy of which cows are in need of artificial insemination and which cows need to be dried up. It also records the weight and body temperature of each animal, as well as notifies the dairy of abnormal milk, mastitis and other potential illnesses.
“The new system allows us to get to the cows before they get sick,” Nancy said. “It helps us to head off a lot of things before they become a real problem.”
Under the new milking robotic milking system, the Pechous Dairy has seen an increase of approximately 10 pounds of milk per cow. The daily average at the dairy is currently about 80 pounds of milk per cow. Overall, the dairy produces approximately 20,000 pounds of milk per day.
“My goal per cow was 86 pounds per day,” Bob said. “We are not far from that right now. We actually have 33 cows producing over 100 pounds of milk per day, and our top producer is at about 145 pounds per day.”
Currently, two-thirds of the Pechous Dairy’s herd is first-time heifers who don’t produce as much milk until their second lactation.
“Next lactation, we are going to probably get another 10 pounds of milk per cow from the majority of our herd,” Nancy said. “After our first-time heifers have their second calf, they will produce more milk.”
Already the largest of three dairies in Yankton County, the Pechous family said it wants to continue to lead local dairy production well into the future with the technological investments they have made at their facility. Anyone interested in learning more about the family’s operation is welcome to join them for an open house and free meal on Saturday, July 15. The event is sponsored by South Dakota Farm Families and runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the dairy’s location three miles northeast of Tabor at 30464 428th Avenue.
“We want to help educate people on where their dairy products come from,” Bob said. “A lot of people might not know what goes into the process of getting their milk from the cow to the table.”