Inside the barn at Farr Farm in Richmond, dairy cows with full udders line up to be milked throughout the day and night, but there’s nobody there to milk them.
That’s because the farm uses a robotic milker, which lets the cows file into the machine when they are ready to be milked. For some cows, this is five times a day — a big difference from the more human-oriented milking schedule of twice a day. For the humans involved, this makes all the difference.
“It allows me to be flexible,” said Ashley Farr, 34, who owns the farm. “You can feed the cows at 2 in the afternoon and go to your kid’s ball game or school concert, and then come back at 8 at night and check them again.”
In the barn, the robot milkers go to work when a cow enters the machine, which the animals do seeking to relieve the pressure on their udders. A trough at the front of the machine holds the extra promise of a feed ration measured out based on each cow’s average production. Lasers guide the placement of suction cups, which milk the cow. Once milking is done, the cow exits through a gate at the front of the machine, which allows the back gate to open and another cow to file in. Once the cows have been trained to use the machine, they file in and out when they choose, on their own schedule.
It was the promise of a new farm routine that brought Farr back to the dairy business. Farr and his father sold off their cows and equipment on their third-generation dairy farm in 2008, and he wasn’t expecting to get back into running his own farm, though he probably would have continued raising crops for other farmers.
“There’s some people that really enjoy milking cows — I just don’t happen to be one of them,” said Farr with a laugh.
So in 2012, Farr and his wife, Erin, jumped at the opportunity to purchase a used robotic milking system from a farm that was closing in Pennsylvania. The dairy herd now hovers between 50 and 60 cows — the maximum capacity for one machine, and about half the herd size he milked before 2008. With a herd that size, Farr would need at least one part-time laborer to help milk the cows, and finding people willing to milk cows early in the morning and late into the evening is no easy task.
Dan Scruton, dairy and energy chief at the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets, said the struggle to find reliable labor is something that has drawn a number of Vermont farms to robotic milking systems. Eleven farms in the state are now using robotic milkers, with two to three more coming on line in the coming months. In total, there are 28 machines operating on those farms, with each machine milking 60 cows at most.
Paul Godin, who sells Lely robotic milkers in Enosburg Falls, said the technology was developed in Holland in the 1990s, though it faced regulatory hurdles before its arrival in the U.S. Godin went into the robot milker business in 2003, when awareness of the technology in the U.S. was low.
“I started back then, and now I get calls every week,” he said.
Since then, Godin — who also runs a dealership in Albany, N.Y. — has installed robotic milkers across the state, as well as across New England, Quebec and New York. He said his dealership offers its own financing options, but since 2003 it’s become easier for dairy farmers to get external loans to install the milkers.
“In the past, (lenders) didn’t have any local data, so they were a little gun shy,” he said. “Now they are on board, and they’re willing to finance them.”
Tom Gates, cooperative relations manager at the St. Albans Cooperative Creamery — which collects milk from more than 400 farms in the state — said only five member farms are using robotic milkers at this point, but that there are a number of others looking at installing them because of the widespread difficulty of maintaining steady milking labor.
“What we’ve seen over the course of the last five years is there’s been more and more of an interest in using robotic milkers,” said Gates.
Scruton said many of the farms using robotic milkers have put in three to four, placing them in the small to mid-range size within the Vermont dairy landscape. So far, Vermont’s larger farms have not adopted the technology.
“As you get larger, the labor question is a little different, because you’re going to need labor to manage that number of cows anyway,” said Scruton.
But for some smaller farms, he said, robotic milkers have emerged as one solution to labor issues.
“Labor is one of the attractive things to some farmers,” he said. “Rather than managing people and labor, the machine does the milking.”
But the milkers come at a cost — one machine costs around $210,000 new, and depending on the type of barn, renovations before installing the milkers can be an additional cost.
Farr got lucky, however — just as he was beginning to look into the possibility of buying a robot and getting back into the dairy business, the used machine came up for sale and he and his wife, Erin, jumped at the opportunity. The machine cost the Farrs $125,000.
“The whole thing was about half as expensive as a new one,” said Erin Farr.
All told, a milking parlor run by manual labor would have been nearly as costly to install, and the couple said they expect that the labor savings will make the expense worth it in just a few years.
And there’s an additional savings as well: the peace of mind gained as the cows file through the system steadily, milking when necessary, throughout the day and night.
“It’s here every day. It shows up on time, it works,” said Erin.
“It does break down occasionally,” said Ashley, “but what doesn’t?”
In the case of a breakdown, a power outage, or if the various supplies for self-cleaning and sanitizing are running low, the machine will send an automated phone call to alert the farmer.
The machine also keeps production and milking frequency data for each cow, which allows for production tracking. Ashley Farr said this is useful data, but it doesn’t necessarily stand in for close observation of herd health.
“You pick up a lot when you’re milking cows,” he said. “Because you’re not doing that, you kind of have to be watching the herd a little closer.”
Still, he said the automation of day-to-day milking operations has made his operation more profitable than his prior dairy business. He estimates an increase of 15 percent milk production per cow, primarily from enabling the animals to milk more often. The robot has also allowed him to devote more time to raising forage crops, in turn saving him money on feed. Though he estimates that he puts the same amount of time into managing the farm overall, it’s time that’s not tied to the milking routine. That, he said, makes all the difference to him, and he expects that robotic milkers will play a role as aging farmers look to children and younger relatives to take over the business.
“I think it’s got the potential to help this next generation stay in farming. Maybe not necessarily get into farming, because the cost is just so huge, but I think it’s got the potential to help at least some farms that are about to go out stay in business,” he said.
Scruton doesn’t expect that every farm in the state will jump to adopt robotic milking parlors — he said different farm managers have different styles, and that while some prefer the more data-driven process of robotic milking, others prefer the hands-on milking process.
“It’s a different skill set, and some people will enjoy that,” he said. “I don’t think it’s going to replace milking parlors, but it certainly is going to have a niche.”