Friday, December 21, 2012

Small dairy farms and robots

I've written about the dairy industry a few times in the past few weeks, for a variety of reasons.  One of the biggest is that it produces a product that people like, in quantities that make it possible to make a living, and it suits the climate here pretty well, provided you go with feed for the cattle that is grown here.  Like grass. 
A milking robot
There are a number of challenges about dairy farming; it can require quite a bit of money to get into it,  you'll usually have to have many acres, and the scale of the work is pretty daunting.  Most dairies in this country milk all of their cows at least twice a day, with some dairies milking them 3 times a day.  A cow is built to produce milk, and can store that milk in her udder for a while, but once full, she stops producing.  If she's not milked at all, she'll dry up.  Cows are built to feed calves, and produce best when milked often. 

Milking multiple times per day, 7 days a week, is a lot of work.  What that means is that most folks who own dairy farms have employees, and that adds the management of the employees to the other challenges that the farm has.  You have to deal with it when your milker doesn't show up.  You have to hire and fire, and, well, employees never care about the farm as much as you do. 

So many dairy farms are turning to robots to milk the cow, and I've got to say that this idea appeals to my engineering side.  If you'd like to see one of these robotic milking parlors working, you'll find a video below which shows you some views of it.  It doesn't really talk about what's going on in the video -- it's just the video without explanation, but you get the idea from it. 

Robotic dairy video

Dairies with as few as 60 cows are buying these things -- and they are expensive.  They start at around $170,000 USD, and go up to $210,000 USD for the latest model with all the accessories. 
But here's what they do for you: 

1) the cows decide when they want to be milked.  They spend their time doing whatever they'd like to do, and when they feel like it, they wander over to the machine and are milked.  I've read probably 50 news stories from farmers using this, and this is one of the first things that they mention.  People get hurt when working with 1,000lb cows, and it takes time and energy to round the cows up.  With this system, the cows round themselves up, and milk themselves as many times a day as the cows wish.  The farmer gets a report about who's been milked and who hasn't, and can go get the cows if they aren't showing up often enough. 

2) Because the cow is doing more of what it wants, the perception is that the cow is more comfortable, and this usually results in a 10 to 20% rise in milk production.  So your same herd and facilities produce more milk. 

3) Less staff, and a smaller payroll.  The farmers report generally that they enjoy not having to be in the parlor for milking at fixed times of the day.  The robots will text them if anything needs attention, and they can reset and control the milking machines from their cell phone. 

4) the milk quality is measured and tested for each nipple of the cow, and if there are any issues, the milk is held back from the main supply.  So your produced milk is cleaner and has a lower somatic cell count than usual, according to reports. 

5) speaking to quality; the milking is done the same way, with cleaning done between every cow milked, and that has been one of my biggest concerns about things like raw milk.  If you miss a step with raw milk, you contaminate potentially the entire batch.  Here I'll trust the machine to do it better than my hired hands. 

6) You get the milk production PER NIPPLE for every cow.  You get her weight, temperature, and a variety of other statistics, and can give any cow you choose a special ration.  Got a cow that's running a fever?  You know it right away.  Losing weight?  Check.  And when it comes time to figure out who's not producing milk you can look back over the last few months and see.  As an engineer, I LOVE the idea that you are making decisions on your farm based on real data. 

There's a very real human benefit, too.  Many dairy farmers have repetitive stress injuries, or blow out their knees, after years of hard labor.  This machine is allowing people to stay on their farm, and in their industry, longer than they would otherwise be able. 

It also makes inheriting and running a dairy farm more attractive to their children, and succession of farms is often a problem... 

But the price... the price.    In Europe, which gives more price supports to farmers on milk, these machines are very popular, and given high labor costs in Europe, they pencil out pretty fast.  Here, with our minimum wage standard for farm jobs, not so much.  that doesn't mean that people aren't adopting them -- one of the primary markets is the small (less than 300 head) dairy farms. 

Most of the US farmers that have adopted them figure that they'll pay for themselves in 7 to 10 years. 


off grid mama said...

Talk to this guy. He has personal experience with robotic milkers.

Bruce King said...

I've looked carefully at their website and every page of it, and I can't find any mention of automated milking on it. Have you seen something where they talked about it?