Local farmers enlist robots to milk their cows

Reprinted with permission from the Times Union

VALATIE – At a farm in Columbia County that traces its roots to 1950, robots milk the cows.

The animals follow the scent of food through an enclosed route to the machines, which scan an identification tag for each one. While the cows eat, the robots work, extracting and monitoring the amount, quality, speed and temperature of the milk each cow produces. They don’t seem to mind the whirring machines, chewing calmly and swatting away flies with their tails.

The robots also record how much a cow eats, how often they are milked and how many steps they take a day. If something goes wrong, Eric Ooms gets a call from the robots.

Dairy farmer Eric Ooms explains the workings of one of his robot milking machines at the A. Ooms & Sons Dairy Farm Thursday November 2 in Valatie. Photo by John Carl D’Annibale

“There’s so much data,” Mr. Ooms, who owns the farm with his father and two brothers, said. “I’m still figuring it all out. It’s a tremendous tool.”

The family bought three robots for the 1,800-acre, 475-cow farm in 2015. Last year they added four more. The machines have increased their milk production by between 10 and 15 percent, but the biggest bonus is not having to hire human workers.

“Labor is less plentiful now more than ever,” Mr. Ooms said. “A lot of people don’t want to do this work.”

Finding reliable labor has become a significant hurdle for farms across the U.S., exacerbated by rising labor costs and the Obama and Trump administrations’ crackdowns on undocumented immigrants. Teenagers who used to be interested in summer jobs on farms are looking for employment elsewhere, and the children of farmers are not as keen on carrying on the legacy, farmers say.

With immigration reform stymied in Washington, hiring workers will only get more difficult. Year-round operations like dairy farms don’t have access to the federal H-2A program, which brings foreign workers to the U.S. to work on farms temporarily. In New York, ranked third in the nation for dairy production and first in producing cottage cheese, sour cream and yogurt, dairy farmers are desperate.

As a result, dozens of upstate farmers have invested in robotic milking machines that feed and milk the cows themselves. The majority of the robots are made by Lely, a European manufacturer. Whitney Davis, vice president of dairy equipment sales at Finger Lakes Dairy Services, estimates that there about 250 Lely robots on farms in New York.

The dealership only sold a handful of robots when they started offering them in 2007, but will sell between 45 and 55 to farms throughout the state this year, a record number. The machines are particularly popular with a younger generation of farmers more open to new technology, Mr. Davis said.

“It takes the human out of the process,” he said. “Labor is the huge driver, and I think the trend is only going to accelerate.”

The robots also provide more flexibility for farmers used to working long hours around the clock. Before buying four Lely robots in 2015, Curtis Nolan and his farmhands were spending 21 hours a day milking 380 cows. After installing the machines, he cut the number of dairy workers at his Washington County farm from five to three and has more time to spend managing other aspects of dairy farming.

“We needed to do something to lighten the load,” he said. “It’s a challenge to find people and get them to stay.”

Still, the machines are a hefty financial investment and often require building new infrastructure to accommodate them. The price can vary depending on the herd size and barn, Mr. Davis said. Each unit comes with a milking device with sensors that detect a cow’s teats, online data displays and cleaning equipment.

Mr. Ooms paid $170,000 for each robot and added a new barn, which cost about $2 million altogether. He pays $300 per robot for an annual software update.

Jeff Post, a dairy farmer in Genesee County, shelled out about $1.4 million for four robots and a new barn in 2010 and another $1.7 million to add four more machines and a new structure a few years later. He hopes to get at least 10 years out of each machine, but still views the machines a smart purchase.

“They’re a high cost investment up front, but we wanted to expand our herd and ability and not worry about the headaches of having to find additional labor,” he said.

Adjusting to the new technology and a computerized process has not been an easy transition for some farmers. Dealerships help with the training, but it can take several months for the cows and the farmers to get used to the robots.

Mr. Nolan is still trying to find the right nutritional balance for feeding the cows. An air compressor that powered the milking machines hit a snag several weeks ago, shutting them down and forcing Mr. Nolan and the other workers to return to milking the cows by hand.

“The robots have been a big help, but technology still has problems,” he said. “Nothing is perfect.”

To contact reporter • 518-454-5018 • @madisoniszler

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