Robots provide milking options for Middlebury farm

MIDDLEBURY — The family that runs Foster Brothers Farm has long run a tight operation. But they also realize that sometimes you have to spend a little to make a little.
A year ago the operation off Lower Foote Street in Middlebury opened up a huge new barn that includes the latest technology that allows the business to keep the cows at maximum productivity with a relatively small number of human hands.
The farm borrowed $6 million to build what Robert Foster referred to as the “Cow Palace.” They hired someone just to manage building the facility, which Foster credited for coming in $300,000 under budget.
The building, which is 640 feet long and 30 feet tall, includes unsurprising features, like extensive ventilation and curtains that raise and lower with changes in temperature and wind direction. It also is not the first in the county to feature robotic milking machines.
What really stands out, though, is an extensive computer technology that allows for fewer people and happier cows.
“All the cows have their own personality,” Foster said.
He explained that each cow has an ear tag with a tiny radio transmitter on it. The cows are kept in an area of the barn where they can lounge on water-filled mattresses or get scratched by a giant rotating brush. If an individual cow is so inclined it approaches a gate that recognizes it using the radio tag. The system decides, depending on that cow’s history, if it will open the gate to the robotic milking area or to the feeding area.
Mark Foster, who keeps things moving in the new barn, said the cows needed to be taught how to use the system, but they learn quickly.
There are eight robots milking cows, which have to wait their turn but can get in line anytime they wish. The system ID’s each cow as it locks it into the milking stall, washes its utters, then a robotic arm moves the teatcups that collect the milk into place using infrared sensors. The milk is measured and analyzed for each cow.
The cows are treated so well that their productive for many more years than used to be typical for dairy cows.
The central computer aggregates the milking and feeding information into a database that allows farm managers to track individual cow performance and herd metrics. Herd manager Rachel Dubanowski can generate reports with bar graphs and charts to identify trends and single out specific problems.
The system sends alerts to farm managers’ phones when an issue arises that needs to be addressed by a human being. While Robert Foster was out of state just before receiving the award he got an alert on his phone and had to send back a response to keep things moving.
The systems in the new barn are so focused on efficiency that they include heat exchangers that take heat from the fresh milk before it goes into the tanker truck for transportation to the Cabot plant.
As Robert Foster tells it, Dubanowski recently was asked by old college professor when she was going to come back to graduate school, and she answered that she had her dream job already.
Speaking about Dubanowski, but surely referring to the entire Foster Brothers Farm operation, Foster touted the changes that the farm is continually making.
“We want to keep her interested and excited about working here,” he said.

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