How Robots Are Leading to Healthier Cows

Robotic milking is changing the way we get our dairy.

(Photo: Sebastien Bozon/Getty Images)

Sep 24, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Sarah McColl has written for Yahoo Food, Bon Appétit, and other publications. She's based in Brooklyn, New York.

My mother grew up on a dairy farm, where it was her job to bring the cows into the barn for their evening milking. It was such onerous work, she was still complaining about it 40 years later. What’s so hard about rounding up some Holsteins?

“Cows are creatures of habit,” said Mark Duffy of Massachusetts’ Great Brook Farm. “The basic philosophy is to treat them like your grandmother who never wants to go anywhere.” Twice-a-day milkings, in that case, are like trying to get Granny to Six Flags morning and night.

That’s one reason why robotic milking, which Great Brook Farm installed in 2011, is having such an impact on the dairy industry. The cows decide when to stop chewing cud and wander into the barn to be milked by the robot. The robots detect when the cows are nearby, clean their udders, attach nozzles to the teats, and extract the milk while also recording information about individual cow health and milk production. Farmers are notified when a cow needs attention or if a machine malfunctions. More data for the farmer, more freedom for the cow. Just like it does with humans, freedom of choice is making dairy cows healthier and more productive.

The downside is the expense. Steven and Denise Barstow, seventh-generation dairy farmers, had their eye on the robotic milkers, but it wasn’t until they sold the development rights to a parcel of their land that they had the capital to make the $600,000 investment to purchase four robots. Duffy leases his farm from the commonwealth of Massachusetts, which financed the roughly $350,000 voluntary milking system.

(Photo: Jean-sebastien Evrard/AFP/Getty Images)

But the investment could pay off for some small and midsize farms in the Northeast, where the difficulty of finding reliable workers and antique infrastructure makes operations inefficient, Richard Kersbergen of the University of Maine Extension told The Associated Press. At their organic dairy farm in Vermont, Jennifer and Jesse Lambert said they are saving $60,000 a year that used to go toward paying one full-time and one part-time employee. Their cows are also producing 20 percent more milk.

“We know that herd health and individual cow health has improved because we have this computerization now,” said Denise Barstow. “Before, we were relying on our farmer instincts. We had excellent records, but now, if [a cow’s] milk has a sign of infection or anything, it gives us a jump on it so that even before she’s exhibiting any sort of issues, we know.”

Management of the cows—keeping them healthy and happy—is not only good stewardship but affects the bottom line.

“We’re in the business of milk,” Barstow continued. “So when cows are more comfortable and healthier, they’re going to give more milk. It’s a team effort here. Milk production is a gallon and some change per day.”

But the technology also comes with a steep learning curve for the farmers and the cows. At Longview Farm, the robots were installed last December so everyone could get used to the new system during a slower period on the farm.

“It was a really cold and long winter,” Barstow said. “Cows are so habitual that it was a full-time job for everybody.” That meant two weeks of six people on duty 24 hours a day. “It was a lot of work.” But once the cows get the hang of it, they can set their own milking schedule, and the farmers have extra time to take on other projects: “We don’t have to stop cutting the corn so we can go milk the cows.”

Robots on dairy farms don’t necessarily jibe with the bucolic Old MacDonald image of what life on the farm looks like. But even old family farms, where one generation will often follow the lead of the one before, are embracing technology as a way to adapt to an industry and keep pace with a market in which milk prices aren’t stable.

“The motto on our farm is ‘Looking Forward Since 1806.’ This is what we were founded on. It’s more than changing the chore list order, it’s like a mind-set,” Barstow said. “People demand this other image that they have of farms, of hand milking, when in reality that’s not comfortable for the cow, and that totally sucks for the farmer. This is so much better.”