Tapping into technology

Written by Jason Nichols

These days, Tom Trinder not only feeds his herd and manages his pasture, he checks his phone for updates on his cows and watches his computer for details on energy usage.

What he doesn’t spend any time doing on his New York farm is milking.

Over the past 12 years, Trinder has taken a more progressive approach to dairying by transitioning what was a conventional operation into one that milks cows by way of robotic technology and also engages in energy efficiency.

“If you’re not going to get bigger, you have to get better,” says Trinder, who spent 20 years with Dairylea Cooperative before joining Dairy Farmers of America after the April 1 merger of the two cooperatives.

In 2002, Trinder implemented a managed grazing program, which paved the way to becoming certified organic the next year. Nine years later, the technology upgrades began, first with the installation of robotic milkers, then the addition of a windmill and solar panels for energy production.

"I’m a relatively small farm,” he says. “I felt if I could cut my costs and cut labor, I could stay in business much longer that way. I’m 67 right now, and I figure I’ve got five to 10 years in me with these changes. It’s a lot easier working on this farm now.”

Trinder has lived on Trinder Farm LLC in Fabius, N.Y., since his father founded the operation in 1952, when Tom was 5. He purchased the farm from his father in 1978. Manager Nancy Wood has worked full time at the dairy since 1978.

Four years ago, the 1965 milk parlor had reached a serious state of disrepair. In addition, after decades of milking cows twice a day, Wood needed to make her own health a priority.

“I’d milked cows for 30 years,” she says. “I had carpal tunnel and other health issues. And it’s hard to find help, too.”

Of even greater concern for Trinder was watching Wood overcome cancer on two occasions.

“I wanted to make sure she had more time off,” he says.

The solution: Let the robots handle the milking.

Two robots milk the farm’s 128 cows between two and six times per day. Trinder says training the cows to use the robotic system was surprisingly simple. He and Wood handled programming the robots to recognize each cow.

“We thought it was going to take a week, but within three days, they were pretty well programmed in,” Trinder says. “Before we started milking there, we started pushing the cows through, giving them grain. That’s how we broke them in.”

One issue on which they required guidance was how to integrate the grazing system into a milking program in which the cows would have access to the robotic milking system throughout the day.

They turned to fellow DFA member Chuck Deichmann for advice. According to Trinder, Diechmann was the first New York organic dairy to implement a robotic system.

“He came to our farm before we installed the system and I asked him that very question,” Trinder recalls. “He said, ‘Just leave some feed in the bunk.’ It was just that simple. If they know they can come back and get a little haylage out of the feed bunk or some hay, they will come back and utilize those robots. If you see our grazing area, you’ll see we have multiple areas for them to go and come back through. They can be going out as they come back, just like a highway.”

The herd has access to pasture and the milking equipment 24 hours a day, seven days a week.