Weighing the pros and cons
The scene inside the barn at Dream On Farm is peaceful. Cows lounge and wander freely, visiting the automatic backscratcher and stepping up to be milked at will. An automatic feed pusher ensures they have plenty to eat, and a robotic cleaner makes its way across the barn’s slotted floors, cleaning up without disturbing the cows.
“It’s very tranquil,” says Mary Warren, who operates the 115-cow dairy with her husband, Joe. “The nonhuman interference that you give them, you can just tell they love it. And people who come here, they notice it. You can feel it in the barn.”
Dream On Farm, located on 229 acres in Whiting, Vt., is home to two Automatic Milking Systems (AMS), commonly referred to as robotic milkers. These machines enable cows to set their own milking schedules, automatically performing all the tasks associated with milking. When each cow enters the robot, her electronic ID tag is read, and her experience is customized to fit her needs and level of production. She is given a feed reward, her udders are cleaned and milk cups are attached. After she is finished being milked, the cups automatically detach and she is able to exit the robot. The machines are capable of milking 24 hours a day, without human involvement.
The Warrens decided to make the switch to the robotic systems in February 2014, after nearly 20 years of milking. At the time, the couple was milking 90 cows in a tie-stall barn with the help of their niece. They worked long, backbreaking hours.
“It was getting old, but we didn’t like the idea of hired help,” Warren says.
The Warrens were used to doing things on their own. Joe had always worked on farms and loved the lifestyle, but the couple didn’t have a family farm to inherit. They saved some money and purchased six cows, starting their farm from scratch in 1991. At the time, they both also worked fulltime jobs off the farm.
“We did that on a little rented farm where you had to carry your milk to the bulk tank,” Warren says. “We did that for four years.”
They moved to another farm in 1995 — a slight improvement, with a pipeline to the bulk tank. But four years later, they lost their entire herd to a fire. They purchased their current farm in 2000, a tie-stall facility that was in need of remodeling. As their operation continued to grow, they realized that they needed additional help.
“We had always been interested in robotic milking,” Warren says. “So we just kept watching the technology. We got to the point where we needed to figure out what we could do to make things a little bit easier.”
Decreased labor and increased efficiency are some of the most obvious advantages of AMS, allowing dairy farmers like the Warrens to improve efficiency and milk cows with only family labor.
“With this technology, you take labor out of the equation, so the cows are milked very consistently,” says Larry Fox, professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. “You don’t have to schedule or pay for that labor. If somebody doesn’t show up, it’s not your headache. The machine is there, and it will automatically milk the cows.”
For the Warrens, those labor savings have been considerable. The machines save each of them about five hours of physical labor a day, but Warren says dairying is still a fulltime job — the capacity has just changed.