Robots aren't far away from dairyland

by Greg Booher Lakeshore Technical College Farm Business Instructor

In case you don’t know the definition of the word change, don’t worry, Webster’s defines change this way, “when something is different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone.” Some days I am all for new technology and some days I would like to in fact just leave things along.

Rather than writing my disclaimer at the end of this column, I will go ahead and verbalize it right now. I am doing this so folks that fight change or who normally are slow to change will not quit reading this article. If you have a passion for agriculture, I hope you will read and find the article of interest.

This article will highlight some of the high tech tools available to the assist farmers with the management of their farms. This is not to say that those that embrace the newest and greatest are the most profitable. Once a year, I prepare a report highlighting the financial performance of a small farm using a grazing approach to dairying. On a per cow basis, this small operation is as profitable as any of the best managed dairies in the country. Everyone has their reasons for doing the things they do whether it is dairy farming or managing their kitchen. We often don’t make all decisions on pure economics. Other secondary factors weigh heavy in our decision making process. Things like wanting to spend more time with family or using equipment to lessen the physical demands on our bodies are a few of the aspects that are not easy to monetarily value.

The term “precision agriculture” has recently entered the American vernacular. The term can be used in regards to many of the new developments in agriculture. Global positioning is literally allowing crop producers to drive their equipment within less than inch of where planting is desired. Although the technology is very expensive, the equipment has been able to increase production while at the same time reduce input costs. When the investment in this high tech equipment is spread over enough acres, the cost per unit of production can drop dramatically. As old equipment reaches the end of its useful life, producers can weigh the decision either to replace the planter or hire a custom operator who has the high tech equipment and reap the benefits of the newest technology.

The processes of managing herd health and the milking of cows is coming under a metamorphosis. Some early adaptors are already using cloud based computer technology to find when cows are ready to be bred, when they have a change in rumen health or a spike in their body temperature. In fact, these high tech herd management tools have the ability to catch something wrong with a cow before a human can detect something is wrong or in some instances, before the cow herself knows she is getting sick.

Robotic milking has been used by a very few U.S dairymen for almost 15 years. Although only a handful of Wisconsin producers have successfully used robotic milking, European producers have made great strides adopting robotic milking. A major reason why American dairymen have been slow to adopt this technology is due to the cost of the technology in comparison to the cost to manually milk cows. Labor in the U.S. is a lot lower than other countries. I recently had the opportunity to talk with a 1200 cow Australian dairyman about their labor costs. The Australian government has strict wage and labor controls. The government mandates dairy farm labor will be paid the equivalent of $25.00 per hour U.S. and their dairy milk price is lower than the average in the United States. Therefore, it is not hard to understand that high tech labor saving tools will be more quickly adopted where a more rapid payback is possible.

I am currently working on some feasibility studies but have not found much real time data to help make a definitive decision comparing conventional parlor milking with employees to robotic milking. Each robot has a price tag of approximately $250,000 and can milk up to only 60 cows per robot. Some initial results have indicated improvement in detecting sick cows, improved reproductive performance, some flexibility in how the herd is managed and in some cases it appears production may improve. Certainly the labor paid to milk cows is way less but the investment is substantial. Time will tell how bottom line indicators like return on investment will shake out.

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