Robotic milkers shake up dairy farm routines

ORWELL — In a barn at the Hall and Breen Farm on Monday morning, two lines of cows jostled for position, eager to enter the single-cow berths where they’d be rewarded with troughs of grain.
On the other side of the berths, Louis Hall and two maintenance workers watched as the robotic arms grasped each cow’s udders, milked, then released. As a cow left the stall, she pushed aside a bar that allowed the next cow to enter.
This past winter the organic dairy farm in Orwell became only the third in Vermont to install these robotic milking machines. According to Bob Parsons, an agricultural economist at the University of Vermont, the sight of robots milking cows won’t be an unusual sight for long.
“I think we’re going to see more and more of them in the coming years,” said Parsons.
Jennifer Breen runs Hall and Breen Farm with Hall, her father. Breen said the milking machine required a steep initial investment, but that it’s already made a difference on the farm.
“It changes everything,” she said. “Life’s a lot less stressful because your routine isn’t tied to milking.”
In fact, the two are now able to manage the farm on their own, with occasional help from day laborers during busy times like harvest season. Rather than herding the cows into the milking parlor twice a day, once at daybreak and once in the morning, the milking machines do the same work 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Cows queue up when they are ready to be milked, whether it’s day or night — and queue up they do. When observed this week, they seemed happier to be milked whenever their udders are full rather than on a human schedule.
“We’re averaging 2.5 to 2.7 milkings per day,” said Breen. “Even at the lowest, that’s an extra half a milking per day.”
That’s not just better for production numbers, said Breen. Cows milked more often and on their own schedules are healthier, she said.
The robot milkers don’t just save Hall and Breen the extra salaries they’d be paying laborers to help with milking chores. They allow the family farm to circumvent labor supply issues that plague the dairy industry, both in Vermont and nationally.
“One of the complications with the dairy industry is that you put out all these ads and you’re still never going to get people who want to milk cows,” said Parsons.
So dairy farmers must turn to anyone who will take those jobs. For many, that means hiring workers from Latin America, some with a murky immigration status.
“If we can eliminate (milking), we can eliminate some of that pressure,” said Parsons.
Hall and Breen said it’s been much easier to find laborers to do work for them since they crossed “milking” off the chore list for good.
“We’ve definitely had more people willing to work if they don’t have to milk,” said Breen.
The father-daughter team isn’t just an early adopter compared to other Vermont dairy farms, nationally they’re on the cutting edge of a development that’s been slow to catch on. Parsons said the robotic milkers got their start on small-scale farms in Holland and Germany in the early 1990s and spread across Europe and Canada from there.
And while more and more dairy farms across the U.S. are implementing the system, it’s not a cheap solution, and many dairy farms struggle to scrape together the initial equity to purchase the robots. Parsons estimated that each machine, which milks a maximum of 60 cows, costs the farmer upwards of $150,000. And there are other costs.
These additional costs include building a room for the machinery that adjoins the milking barn and redoing the space so  the cows have lanes to enter the stalls.
So far, the technology has attracted mainly smaller farmers, since larger farms would have to buy many more of the costly machines to switch over their entire herd.
“You might be capitalizing the cost of labor over a number of years, but you’re paying for it up front,” said Parsons.
Still, the technology is potentially a game changer.
“For a small family farm, it’s a lifesaver,” said Parsons. “It allows them to manage the cows more — (they’re) not doing the drudgery jobs.
“They’re using a computer now, rather than a typewriter,” he added.
Reporter Andrea Suozzo is at [email protected].

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