Something strange is happening at farms in upstate New York. The cows are milking themselves.
Desperate for reliable labour and buoyed by soaring prices, dairy operations across the state are charging into a brave new world of udder care: robotic milkers, which feed and milk cow after cow without the help of a single farmhand.
Scores of the machines have popped up across New York’s dairy belt and in other states in recent years, changing age-old patterns of daily farm life and reinvigorating the allure of agriculture for a younger, tech-savvy — and manure-averse generation.
“We’re used to computers and stuff, and it’s more in line with that,” said Mike Borden, 29, a seventh-generation dairyman, whose farm upgraded to robots, when disco-era milking parlors — the big, mechanised turntables that farmers use to milk many cows at once — started showing their age. And,” Borden added, “it’s a lot more fun than doing manual labour.”
Robots allow the cows to set their own hours, lining up for automated milking five or six times a day — turning the predawn and late-afternoon sessions around which dairy farmers long built their lives into a thing of the past.
With transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized service. Lasers scan and map their underbellies, and a computer charts each animal’s “milking speed,” a critical factor in a 24-hour-a-day operation.
The robots also monitor the amount and quality of milk produced, the frequency of visits to the machine, how much each cow has eaten, and even the number of steps each cow has taken per day, which can indicate when she is in heat.
“The animals just walk through,” said Jay Skellie, a dairyman from Salem, NY, after watching a demonstration. “I think we’ve got to look real hard at robots.”
Many of those running small farms said the choice of a computerised milker came down to a bigger question: whether to upgrade or just give up.
“Either we were going to get out, we were going to get bigger, or we were going to try something different,” said the elder Borden, 59, whose family has been working a patch of ground about 30 miles northeast of Albany since 1837.
The Bordens and other farmers say a major force is cutting labour costs — health insurance, room and board, overtime, and workers’ compensation insurance — particularly when immigration reform is stalled in Washington and dependable help is hard to procure.
“It’s tough to find people to do it well and show up on time,” said Tim Kurtz, who installed four robotic milkers last year at his farm in Berks County, Pa.
“And you don’t have to worry about that with a robot.” The Bordens say the machines allow them to do more of what they love: caring for animals.
The machines are not inexpensive, costing up to $250,000 (not including barn improvements) for a unit that includes a mechanical arm, teat-cleaning equipment, computerized displays, a milking apparatus and sensors to detect the position of the teats.
Pioneered in Europe in the 1990s, they have only recently taken hold in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New York, which is a leader in the production of Greek yogurt and the third-largest milk producer in the country.
Kathy Barrett, a senior extension associate at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, credited a recent surge in milk prices with motivating dairy owners to seek new ways to improve their farms — and farm life.
She said about 30 farms in New York had installed more than 100 robotic milkers. Two European manufacturers, Lely and DeLaval, said they had installed hundreds more across the country.
California, the nation’s leading dairy producer, has been a curious holdout, in part because there were problems at some farms that adopted the technology in early years.
The president of Western United Dairymen, Tom Barcellos, who milks some 1,300 cattle at his operation in Tulare County, Calif., said he was intrigued by the robots but worried that they would be too slow to keep up with the needs of a large herd.
“They just don’t milk enough cows to be economical,” Barcellos said. “You might milk 40 cows an hour. We can do 80.” Animal welfare advocates give the new machines a guarded thumbs-up.