Robots Are Taking Over in Vermont Dairies

6/29/2013 7:00 AM
By Leon Thompson Vermont Correspondent

HIGHGATE, Vt. Richford, Vt., dairy farmer Roger Gendron taught Randy Farrar to milk cows with just a bucket and stool in the late 1960s. Farrar was 12 years old.

Four decades later, in Farrar’s office at Champlain Dairy Services (CDS), in nearby Highgate, the conversation turns to robots on the farm. Farrar, who owns CDS, one of the largest dairy equipment dealerships in Vermont, simply smiles and shakes his head at the concept.

“Back then, robots on a dairy farm was the furthest thing from my mind,” said Farrar, 56, who started working on Franklin County, Vermont, dairy farms in middle school, entered the dairy equipment industry in 1977, and opened CDS in 1996. Family farms surround CDS, in all directions.

“Robots are coming into the Vermont dairy industry, and heavy,” Farrar said.

Farrar is referring to the automatic milking system (AMS) that Europeans developed in the late 1970s and which have been commercially available since the early 1990s. Farrar decided last winter that CDS would start dealing AMSs; economically, it made sense, and he was right.

Earlier this month, he was busy preparing bids for a total of six robotic milking machines on three separate Vermont farms.

Vermont’s dairy industry has typically relied on grassroots, tech-free methods of milk collection, but as farmers have struggled to find reliable help in recent years; younger farm families have sought a stronger, healthier balance between the barn and their schedule outside it. The state’s family farm total has dipped below 1,000 for the first time in its history, and the AMS has emerged more across Vermont.

Currently, the state has 28 robotics stalls on 11 farms, according to Dan Scruton, head of the dairy regulatory program for the Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets.

“We are aware of three more farms, but there may be more than that, because they do not need to tell us until they are ready to install them,” said Scruton, a former dairy farmer and equipment installer who was involved in getting the AMS federal approval for use on Vermont’s Grade A farms.

The AMS looks like a cross between an ATM machine and a car wash for cows. The cow enters at one end to a feed ration that does not interfere with the feed schedule, and lasers guide the placement of suction cups onto the cow, for milking.

When milking ends, the cow exits via a gate at the front of the stall, while a gate at the rear opens, and another cow enters like a car wash for cows. Once cows are trained to use an AMS, they file in and out as they choose, on their own schedule.

However, AMS software technology is so advanced that a unit can now pre-select a cow and reject a milking session if the cow has just gone through the gate, if it’s ill, or for other issues. (YouTube videos exist of a rotary milking unit that would allow cows to enter a carousel that spins slowly, while a robot milks each cow individually.)

“The cows love it,” said Dave Reynolds, co-owner of Bittersweet Farm of Vermont, with his wife, Jen, in St. Albans. They milk about 300 head on their organic operation, which they have owned for five years.

In March, the Reynoldses purchased two Lely model AMS units from Paul Godin, a dealer in Enosburg Falls, Vt., for about $200,000 each, the typical cost. They had considered building an entirely new milking parlor and concluded robotics cost just as much, but didn’t require the cost of personnel after installation.

“The milking is more consistent,” Dave Reynolds said. “It’s the same every day, and you’re not dealing with help that’s in a bad mood and taking it out on the cows.”

Since March, production at Bittersweet Farm has also risen from about 50 to 60 pounds of milk per cow daily. Each AMS has a 50-to-70-cow capacity, and milking isn’t just confined to daily sessions.

“I think the factor that I find attractive is the change from manual labor to spending more time managing the herd,” Scruton said. “I see automatic milking installations having a role on some but not all dairy farms. It is a different way of doing an important job on a dairy farm and each dairy farm is unique in so many ways, so different farmers will make different choices.”

For the Reynoldses, who are in their early thirties, personnel costs and convenience were important, but they really bought the two Lely boxes to stay closely involved in their five children’s lives.

“Even when you’re away, there’s always the worry and stress of whether the herd’s being milked right,” Dave Reynolds said. “That worry is gone.”

The use of robotic milking machines in Vermont has also encouraged equipment dealers such as Farrar, who hopes to sell CDS to his employees, also in their thirties, in the next five years.

“Robotics will grow in the Vermont dairy industry as they take this business over,” Farrar said of his workers. “So you could say the robots are also a part of my employees’ future.”


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