IN DEPTH: Robotics help region’s small dairy farmers

January 17, 2019
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A robotic milking parlor at the farm of Rock Springs dairy farmer Ken Nolden.

Ken Nolden invested in two automatic milking robots eight years ago. He said there would be a “very unlikely chance” of going back to the way his 150 cow dairy operation in Rock Springs, Narrows Dairy, originally operated prior to investing in the technology.

At Nolden’s farm, cows walk on their own inside a milking parlor that leads to a robot. An automatic brush cleans the udder, a laser identifies the precise location for attaching the milking device. While being milked the cow eats a defined amount of feed dispensed into a tray.

After the milking is finished, the udder is cleaned and the cow walks out of the parlor and returns to its stall to continue its day of rest and relaxation. The system cleans the device and the process repeats as the next cow steps in to be milked.

Each cow is represented by a number on a collar that sends a radio wave powered signal to a computer system that tracks the cow’s health, movement and milk quality and puts it into a graph for Nolden to analyze. Originally, he used “visual attention of the operators” keeping an eye on the cattle to watch for activity, if the cow is sick or is in heat to be bred, he said. Now the computer system keeps track of that to determine that information.

Nolden said he invested in the equipment to have a more flexible schedule, deal with less hired labor and improve cow health by having a more free flowing atmosphere and not having the cows stand around waiting for milking. As a farmer, Nolden said he’s seen other dairy operations become interested or making the switch to using the technology.

University of Wisconsin-Madison Professor and Extension Specialist in the Department of Biological Systems and Engineering Doug Reinnemann said about 300 farms in the state are using an automatic robotic milking system and the number is “growing steady” among smaller farms — usually about 200 to 500 cows. However, he said as farmers struggle with low milk prices putting such an investment on the back burner has “slowed down” the adoption of them on dairy farms.

Quality of Life

Being a farmer can mean working 12-14 hour days, seven days a week with very little time off.

University of Wisconsin-Extension Farm Management Program Outreach Coordinator Trisha Wagner said as the agriculture industry evolves, more farmers are changing their values to take a night off or step away from the farm to attend a family event. This means relying more on hired labor or technology to get the job done. Wagner said another reason for the demand is the farm size is increasing, which can also require additional labor.

However, hired labor hasn’t been easy to find. The generational change also means less people are willing to do the tedious work in a highly physical job, especially when it comes to milking cows. This has led to farmers relying more on immigrant workers to fill that void. Reinemann said immigrant labor on dairy farms makes up an estimated state wide average of 60 percent but that labor pool is also “drying up” due to and federal government enforcing stricter rules on immigration and the economy in Mexico improving.

The physical demands of the job is one of the reason farmers would invest in an automatic robotic milking system, or any type of automation,” Reinemenn said.

“You can lead the farm, you don’t have to be there to milk and as the farm gets bigger you have to spend more and more of your time in that regular schedule of milking,” Reinemenn said. “On small farms it is often owners and operators that are doing that milking.”

Dairy Manager and Second Generation farmer Greg Lohr installed four robotic milkers on his family operation, Lohr Dairy, in Prairie du Sac and gets to take a half day off a week.

“That’s more than I got before,” he said. “Work is a lot easier now.”

Having equipment also doesn’t mean a better life for farmers, but also for the cows. Nolden said his equipment saves his cows an estimated 6 hours per day of standing in a parlor waiting to be milked.

Tight labor market

Like other industries, farmers also have to compete with the historically low unemployment rate, which stands at about three percent. Low commodity prices are not making it easy to provide competitive wages to attract workers. While Wagner said research has shown farmers throughout the state are offering competitive wages, it’s still been a “challenging environment” to find ways to attract and retain high quality employees.

“(Farmers) haven’t had the ability to compete with other industries because of the fact (they) haven’t had extra income,” Wagner said. “Their income has remained flat and actually. For some been below the cost of production.”

Reinnemann said the average wage statewide is $13-$14 an hour, but mainly depends on location. Prior to investing in the automatic milker, Lohr said he was paying two immigrant workers $15 an hour to help with milking cows. The workers kept demanding additional pay and threatening to quit if he didn’t, causing additional stress for Lohr.

“That was the tipping point that kind of made me want to get the robots not having to deal with those people anymore,” Lohr said. “They were always demanding more money… It gets to be too much stress trying to keep them happy.”

While Lohr said those workers helped the cows adjust to the robots, they eventually left for other opportunities.

Kip Weber and his son, Kyle, are the second and third generation family members to work on Weber Family Dairy, milking 110 cows on their operation in Elroy. The farm also has another hired person to help with the milking, feeding cows and other daily chores and receives help from family when needed.

Weber said he’s satisfied with his labor force during the winter months but when the crops are harvested “It’d be nice to have a little more help.” He’s thought about trying to find additional labor to help during those months but there’s no room in the budget with the current state of the dairy industry.

“Right now, there’s no extra money so you don’t have them kind of options to be just looking for people,” Weber said. “The jobs in town are paying really well, so it’s hard to find people you can afford to pay and worth having around.”

Wagner said when technology comes in to play the types of employment also change. In addition to one person helping feed the cows, Lohr said he still has one paid person to help manage the equipment computer software and cow management.

Nolden said his operation went from a four person to a three person operation after investing in the equipment, reducing labor costs by about 25 percent. One robotic milker, which can milk about 60 cows, can carry a cost of around $200,000 to $250,000. So farmers have to take out a loan and debate if the high costs is worth the investment.

Steep price tag

With the steep price tag and the risk of taking on additional debt when milk prices are low, some farms are holding back from making a big investment. There’s other costs to consider after the investment, including a little bit of a higher maintenance cost, Reinemann said.

Lohr he said the investment right now isn’t profitable mainly because of the state of the dairy markets. With the robots, Lohr said he’s saving about $8,000 a month on labor costs. However, he estimates about twenty percent of his milk check goes towards paying off the loans.

Wisconsin Farmers Union Director of Special Projects Sarah Lloyd and her husband, Nels Nelson, milk 350 cows on their dairy farm outside of the Wisconsin Dells. She said the investment also depends how long farmers will stay in the industry and with it entering year four of low milk prices more farmers are leaving the industry.

“Because the prices are so low and there doesn’t seem like a light at the end of the tunnel, I think that’s a new hindrance for people moving into this technology,” Lloyd said.

In 2018, a record breaking 638 dairy farms were lost in the state while close to 500 dairy farms closed shop in 2017. Recent data from the Wisconsin Department of Economic Trade and Consumer Protection shows there are 8,163 milk cow herds left in Wisconsin as of December 2018.

For some farms investing in such equipment is only a dream or a long term goal until the markets improve. Michael Turner, the fourth generation of his 100 milk cow dairy farm north of north of Baraboo, recently purchased the farm last year. While he said the long term plan is to invest in constructing a new freestyle barn with two automatic milking robots, the purchase will have to wait as he is still paying off loans from the farm purchase, other equipment and supplies.

Such a big purchase isn’t for every farmer, Nolden said. He said farmers have to analyze their goals for their farm to determine if it is the right investment.

Lloyd fixing the issue of labor and other issues in the dairy farm system is going to require a lot of soul searching. She said the biggest solution in addressing the investment in technology or hired labor is a better milk price for farmers to pay a competitive wage and make a living.

“We need as an industry to come together and really talk about what would be some solutions to find a consistent workforce,” Lloyd said. “We can’t really talk about solving some of these other issues and allowing farmers to have choices in their businesses about would they rather use human labor or invest in technology. They really don’t even have those choices right now because the milk price is so low.”

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