Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Hallelujah! Robots Milk Cows!

Graniteville, Vt. (AP)- (Excerpt) Robots have taken up residence at some small and medium sized dairy farms across the country, providing reliable and more efficient labor and helping businesses remain viable.

All praise to technology and computer geeks.  I take back every bad thing I’ve ever said about you.  You’ve transformed the life of the dairy farmer, the most oppressed, confined, and tethered of all farmers in history bar none.  This is the best thing since sliced bread.  Who am I kidding, its way better than sliced bread.  It’s freedom.  Pure unadulterated freedom.  God bless you programmers locked in rooms unable to speak intelligibly because of the code running through your heads.  You wonderful geeks may not even know what you’ve done.

My family and their predecessors milked Jersey cows on a small farm between Danvers and Mackinaw for God knows how long, probably 100 years.  They delivered raw whole milk, coffee cream, and whipping cream to the people who lived in town until pasteurization requirements put such small dairies out of business.  They made their own butter and fed the skim milk to the cats.  In 1941 they invested in the future as they saw it and built a modern state of the art dairy barn and milk house that complied with looming health laws.  They closed the Danvers delivery operation and shipped Grade A milk to Prairie Farms Dairy until my Mom and Dad retired and sold the cows in 1979.  Let’s just take a stab at quantifying how much work that represents.

If the Sloanes or those before them began milking cows in 1879 (that’s possible) and the McClures took up that task after them not stopping until 1979, they milked cows for 36,500 days not screwing around with leap years and the like.  Dairy farmers milk cows twice a day rain or shine, sickness or health, weather so bad you can hardly get to the barn.  That’s 73,000 milkings.  Spouses and children die, wars break out, calamities occur, tornadoes threaten, ice storms force you to chip open the milk house door, but twice a day you quietly go to the dairy barn, open the door, feed the cows, and relieve them of their milk.  Their milk is both your food and your livelihood.  Selling milk is a steady year round source of revenue.  Your labor is rewarded, but oh my how it affects your life.  Morning and night, morning and night, milking cows with no end in sight.  Committing yourself to dairy farming is like a sentencing yourself to a lifetime of hard labor.  Until now, the dawning of a new age, when cows milk themselves with the aid of robots.

In the past if you milked cows you could of course go anywhere you wanted.  It’s still a free country.  You can go anywhere, after you milk the cows in the morning that is, and as long as you can get home by 4:30 to milk them again.
Want to look at that more closely?  You get up, often in the dark, put on your chore clothes and make your way to the kitchen.  Mom has made coffee.  You may have some, with conversation, or you may just sit there under the dim kitchen light and listen to AM radio; ads, jingles (still in my head), and bouncy announcers.  You go to the basement and put on your coveralls and boots, hat and gloves.  Outside you make your way to the barn.  In winter the cows are kept inside, two rows of twelve facing outside windows.  When you open the door an entire row of twelve cows facing you, twenty four big black eyes, look at your expectantly.  You are their keeper.  You know them each by name.  The first thing you do is feed them.

In summer when the cows are on night pasture the cows are outside the barn, waiting at the door.  You put scoops of feed in the manger in front of each cow’s place, knowing which stall each cow goes to, adjusting the amount of feed, more for the heavy milkers, less for the lightweights, only half for cows gone dry, a month or so away from delivering their next calf. You slide the barn door open a foot or so.  The cows look up at you expectantly; docile, patient, and hungry.  You slide the doors completely open and they file in, step across the gutter, put their necks through the steel stanchions, always the same stall, and begin to eat.  When they are all in you close the stanchions, locking them in, turn on the pump (an electric motor creating a vacuum line up and down the rows of cows), bring in the milkers, pails, and wash water and begin.

24 cows, 12 petcocks providing vacuum to three Surge milking machines, which are suspended under the cow’s udder on straps called surcingles over the cows back by their hip bones.  Eight changes at the most if all 24 cows are being milked, five minutes or so per change, forty minutes for the milking itself.  Chores, the generic word for our morning and evening tending to the cows, took longer.  Hour and fifteen minutes.  Less if you hurried.  Twice a day, every day, for what seemed like the rest of your life.  You could do it yourself if you had to, but it was best done with two.
The invention that was most revolutionary for dairy farmers, after electricity, was the milking machine.  Prior to that you sat beside every cow and milked them individually by hand.  I cannot imagine.   From time to time a cow with an injury or mastitis required one or more quarters be milked by hand and I would do it, unless Dad beat me to it.  Hand milking connects you with the cow in an almost meditative way.  It not only takes longer it allows you to do nothing else.  Two teats at a time, alternate squeezes until dry, repeat.  Milking machines introduced speed and freedom to the dairy barn.  While the machine manipulates the cow’s teats four at a time and extracts the milk, rubber sleeves automatically inflating and collapsing in stainless steel cups, you could carry milk to the milk house, wash the teats of the next cows to be milked, feed hay, any number of things.  Besides your mind going far away during hand milking your hands tire.

“Makes your grip strong,” my Dad would say.  Dad was a positive guy.

Positivity helped dairy farmers survive I think.

The dairy invention that revolutionized milking in my lifetime was the barn cleaner.  The Badger Company out of Wisconsin made them popular.  Investing in a barn cleaner relieved the dairy farmer from a very important but unpleasant task.  Shoveling shit.

To accommodate bigger herds dairy technology went to barns with milking parlors and lounging sheds sometime in the sixties and the cows shit in large areas that could be cleaned with tractors and loaders.  Our barn with stanchions became the cow’s winter home.  A good dairy cow eats alfalfa hay and ground feed voraciously, drinks a lot of water, stays skinny, and turns all her energy into milk production and producing calves.  Because of all that, dairy cows produce manure in prodigious amounts.  That manure, in a smaller confined stanchion barn, must be removed daily.  Add that to your winter chores. Here’s how that goes.
Empty two fifty foot concrete gutters full of cow manure by shoveling one scoop of shit at a time into a wheelbarrow.  When full, brimming, wheel the barrow up a ramp out a side door, across a wooden runway, dump it into the waiting manure spreader, bring it back on the same path, and prepare to refill.  Repeat twelve times.  On a cold and windy winter day when the manure was steaming my brother Darwin, just a kid, was emptying a loaded wheelbarrow into the spreader and a gust of wind blew him headfirst into the spreader.  He got out, but not before cow shit filled his ears and nose.  All kids, they say, need to learn how and when to keep their mouth shut.  My older brother learned the hard way.  Darwin was never fond of milking cows.

When the gutters were empty of manure we spread crushed limestone in the gutter, and when the spreader was full (every third day or so) hooked the tractor onto the manure spreader, affectionately called the terd hearse, and drove it to the assigned field where we engaged the chain drive which fed the manure to the back beaters and flung shit high in the air.  We drove over the field till empty, watching for wind and changing direction cautiously, then drove back and put the manure spreader back into position.  Elapsed time from the start of shoveling to the end?  That easily averaged an hour a day from October till April.  Sundays too.

A barn cleaner like the one Badger sold had a powerful electric motor at the end of an elevated steel chute that dragged a continuous heavy linked chain with paddles through the gutters, automatically pushing the cow manure up the chute where it emptied into the manure spreader.  Voila.  A load of cow shit ready to spread untouched by human hands.  All that was required of the dairy farmer was to throw a lever on an electrical box.  The first time we saw it work we had huge smiles on our faces. Technology.  We loved it.  Really, who cared how much it cost?

There was symmetry to the kind of farming we did on that small farm.  Dad rotated crops on all the tillable acres: soybeans, corn, oats, and alfalfa.  We had permanent pasture with timber and a creek on land that otherwise couldn’t be farmed.  We scooped forty scoops of oats and sixty scoops of ear corn in a little box wagon we hauled to town behind a tractor each week to the feed mill at the elevator.  They added soybean meal, salt, and molasses and ground it while we waited.  The seal on the molasses valve leaked and I always got a thick finger full of molasses off it.  We brought the wagon home full of feed and scooped it back into the feed room in the barn.  Scooped it twice-first as whole grain next as feed.

We made two thousand bales or so of alfalfa hay each year and threw small bales down from the mow to feed the cows twice each day they were not on pasture. In addition we made oat straw for bedding.  The grain and hay the cows ate and of course the pasture they grazed all came from the land around us.  We drank raw milk from the cows and ate the cows as well, butchering them ourselves when I was young and later at the slaughter house in town.  We stored the meat at the locker plant, a big communal freezer in Danvers, until we got our own deep freeze at the house. We fertilized our fields with manure from the cows which in turn helped grow the crops we fed the cows. The cows not only made us money but fed us too.  Same with the chickens.  Milk, eggs, meat, and the garden dominated our diet.  Mom canned vegetables; sweet corn, green beans, pickles, pickled beets, and on and on.  We were organic and didn’t know it.  My Dad, being a modern farmer, used commercial fertilizer and other chemicals as did neighboring farmers in the grain fields when they became available, but he never stopped rotating crops or spreading manure.  It’s hard to find that kind of farm now.  But I have a feeling, and a hope, that technology may make it possible for dairy to achieve small scale viability through new efficiencies like these robotic milkers.

Modern farmers are using them to save labor costs, something we never incurred on our farm, because the family did all the milking.  We were a farm family.  My brothers and I helped my Dad, but no one helped as much as my Mom.  She was in the barn with the rest of us, and cooked all the meals and did the dishes besides.  I don’t think farmers valued their labor then in terms of dollars.  Putting long hours in on the farm was simply what farmers did.  The temptation, perhaps economic necessity, of working in town for wages to supplement farm income probably killed off small dairy farms.  Consider the winter work schedule circa 1960 for our small scale dairy operation like ours in Danvers.
6:30-8:00 a.m.                Morning milking, feed the calves
8:00-9:00                        Breakfast
9:00-10:30                      Wash the milkers, clean the barn, spread manure
10:30-noon                     Other farm work
NOON                            Dinner (followed by my Dad’s big nap)
1:30-4:30 p.m.                Other farm tasks
4:30-6:00                        Evening milking, feed the calves
6:00-6:30                        Wash the milkers
6:30 p.m.                         Supper
6:30-bedtime                   Leisure

Take that day and repeat it for the entire number of days you own a herd of dairy cows.  That was your life as a dairy farmer.  You could squeeze in a day off the farm from time to time, but only between 8:00 a.m. and 4:30 p.m. and certainly not two days in a row, lest you fall behind.  In addition to the milking you had the grain farming; planting, harvesting, and cultivation, plus making hay, repairing equipment, caring for the pasture, cutting thistles, making fence, shelling corn, countless other tasks that farmers simply did. Take away the every day, twice a day task of milking however, and you might be able to take a job that actually paid you money directly for hours worked.  As tractors and implements improved and got larger, enabling farmers to plant and care for more grain acreage, selling dairy cows became easier not only because the milk check became smaller as a proportion of farm income, but because by doing so you could escape a grueling every day schedule of hard work.   You could begin to imagine such a thing as “vacation,” something we never experienced as a family.  I take that back.

When I was eight we drove to Ft. Leonard Wood Kentucky to watch my brother graduate from Army basic training.  We were gone three days and two nights and stayed in motels for the first time ever.  That was the extent of travel with my parents as a kid.  In our absence our neighbor Henry milked the cows.

Modern dairy farmers in the United States have been using migrant labor to milk cows, and it has been in short supply.  In the Netherlands, where labor is more generously rewarded, more than half the dairies now use robotic milkers.  Jesse and Jennifer Lambert of Graniteville Vermont just took out a seven year $380,000 loan to install two robots and retrofit a barn at their organic dairy farm.  They were looking for a more consistent way to milk their cows, spend more time with their newborn son, and at the same time save money.  They are saving $60,000 a year in labor costs that would have gone to a full time and part time employee, and are producing 20% more milk.
“No one wants to milk cows,” Jennifer Lambert said.  “Especially on the weekend.”

She also thinks the robots lead to more relaxed cows.  When a cow wants to be milked, it simply steps up into a stall, grain is dumped in front of it, and an arm reaches under its body to wash the teats.  Next a laser scans the cow’s body, and the arm attaches a cup to each of the four teats, milking them individually.  In addition, the technology collects and stores data about each cow’s production, body temperature, weight, and number of visits to the milking system and sends all that data to the farmer’s computer.

Wow.  You could sit in the barn on a lawn chair and read your smart phone or kindle while all that was going on.  Or stay in the house and read about it later on your computer.
I worked on a dairy farm near Aberdeen, Scotland in the winter of 1975 that milked 260 cows aided by a computerized system.  As groups of twenty cows came in the milking parlor we entered each cow’s number, printed on large ear tags, into a computer.  That number generated a portion of feed that was consistent with where they were in their cycle, cutting back as their milk production waned, doing what Dad did with a feed scoop and the knowledge of each cow in the barn.  It was nothing more a feed and data system.  But I never imagined a machine could milk a cow.  Why not I wonder?  Now 40 years later it’s a reality.

It would be wonderful if the cost of robotic dairy technology came down.  With even less costly labor small farmers might once maintain dairy herds, and we could conceivably return to drinking milk from local farms, perhaps even delicious raw milk.  Like small batch craft beer and whiskey, small batch locally produced dairy products, not only organic milk but cheese and butter as well, could have a resurgence.  I’d be the first in line, as long as I didn’t have to milk the cows.  


  1. So Dave, Pollyanna would say all that physical labor that required very little mental comittment probably made you the dreamer you are today.

  2. So Dave, Pollyanna would say all that physical labor that required very little mental comittment probably made you the dreamer you are today.

  3. What an interesting blog. My Dad, born in 1915, grew up on a 90-acre dairy farm north of Groveland, south of East Peoria. As I was reading this I could visualize Dad, Uncle Bob and Grandpa going through this routine daily. Dad often told me of his time on the farm and chores, but this brings it all back. Thanks.