Robots Take Hold On New York Farms

03.03.14 | Bob Price

Bill Kilcer faced a turning point.

The heart of his Genoa dairy farm, the milking parlor, was showing its age and breaking down too often. But it was just as the Great Recession was taking hold, and replacing the milking equipment was not an obviously good investment. He was hearing advice to sell and find some other way to make a living.

“My wife and I, we were in our 50s,” Kilcer recalled. “What are we going to do? How are we going to keep going?”

The story of Kilcer and Windstott Farm could have ended like so many tales of small to medium dairies in New York: The farmer and his family sell the land and leave. The animals are culled or join a larger farm, one with a corps of hired people, square miles of land and fleets of modern machinery capable of the economies of scale that seem increasingly crucial in keeping the tough work of dairy farming viable. The land goes to other purposes, perhaps subdivided for building lots and forever out of production.

One farm at a time, the dairy way of life, as much a part of upstate New York as silos, red barns and green pasture land, continues its decline.

Not for Kilcer, though, thanks to the robots.

Instead, Kilcer took the plunge on an emerging agricultural technology. He installed two robotic milking machines and related equipment, and software made by the Dutch farm equipment company Lely. In all, Kilcer said, it was a half-million-dollar investment. It was scary taking on that much debt, far more than he ever had.

But nearly five years later, Windstott Farm is still going and Kilcer credits taking the robotic leap with keeping him in the dairy business. From 70 to 80 cows averaging 68 pounds of milk each per day, the herd grew to 120 cows averaging 85 pounds each per day, with the same labor. Kilcer’s making the payments and still in the dairy business.

“This is something I can keep going several more years and hope to be able to retire out of the business and keep the business going,” Kilcer said. “And, worse comes to worst, if something happened to me, we can always pick the robots up and sell ’em.”

Technology is hardly new to dairy farming, which dominates New York agriculture — milk sales represent half of the state’s agriculture receipts, according to the state Department of Agriculture and Markets. From estrous detection to udder health, advances are allowing herds to be more closely managed to boost production and reduce the use of veterinary drugs and invasive procedures.

This is apart from advances in other parts of dairy operations, from raising feed crops to handling manure.

Robotic milking, though, gets at the heart of the dairy operation and way of life. The machines, once set up and made familiar to the cows, take care of milking 24 hours a day with no human intervention. Cows essentially milk themselves on their own schedules rather than being rounded up two or three times a day. Farmers and their hired help have more time for other chores.

The latest models of the machines can be customized for each animal’s milking cycle, alert farmers to signs of illness, and offer detailed reports on each cow’s production — reams of data that can make dairying as much about handling information as handling animals.

But the biggest change may be in labor. Farms can grow their herds without adding more help. Aging farmers are freed from the physical and social demands of early-morning milking 365 days a year. It makes it easier, maybe even possible, to stay in dairy farming at all.

Without the robots, “My body can’t take the work,” Kilcer said. Now, though, “I’m putting in the hours, but it’s not as physically demanding.”

Size-neutral

Fay Benson, who advises small-dairy farmers in the Southern Tier, first encountered robotic milking machines in 2009 on an Allegany County organic dairy that pastured its cows. It seems to him that, unlike some forms of new farm technology, the machines are about more than just raw economy of scale.

“I would say that they’re almost size-neutral, providing you have up to 50 or 60 cows to start with,” said Benson, a small-dairy support specialist with the Cornell Cooperative Extension South-Central New York Regional Team. The investment, typically of $200,000 and up, seems to make the most sense when a farm needs to upgrade its milking equipment anyway and can grow the herd commensurately, Benson said.

“The machine will only handle that many, so you’re getting the maximum use out of that investment with that many cows. Say you had 80 cows and you had to buy two machines. Then that wouldn’t work so well, because you had to buy two machines and you’re not using them fully efficiently.”

On one hand, lenders may be skeptical of the debt per cow, but on the other, bankers may see robotic milkers as tangible assets building value in the event the farm fails, Benson said.

Kilcer hired a consultant to help with his decision. One robot and shrinking the herd to 60 cows would work, but two robots and a larger herd produced better numbers. “We wanted to get smaller, but it wouldn’t pay,” Kilcer said.

At least four major companies offer robotic milkers in North America. Kilcer picked Lely’s Astronaut model. A Seneca County dealership had begun carrying them, and the proximity to quick service, should anything go wrong, was a selling point.

Unlike a lot of farm equipment, there’s little in the machines Kilcer can fix himself, and he has no backup milking system. If the robots go out, the cows don’t get milked.

How it works

To a human, the Lely Astronauts look less like the talking, arm-waving robots from a sci-fi movie than a couple of big, red metal boxes about the size of a cattle trailer. To a cow, they look like a feeding stall with a bin filled with a tasty treat. In the farm’s free-stall barn, cows actually line up a few deep to wait their turn.

An access gate swings open to let in a cow. She steps up to the feed bin, lured by a pelleted mix of corn, barley, and other grains and sweetener. The robot wirelessly reads the transponder in her red collar and recognizes her. If she’s not due for a milking, a cow may receive what Kilcer describes as a very gentle electric prod, and the exit gate swings open. If the cow is due, she’s allowed to stay, and the robotic arm swings into action beneath the cow’s business end.

The process starts with a spray of water and a rolling brush to clean and condition the teats on the cow’s udder. The brush swings away and is itself cleaned with a hydrogen peroxide solution. Laser lights scan the udder and give the robotic arm the precise coordinates to fit the milking cups to each teat.

The growth of cow-specific data from robotic milkers and other devices is a significant trend in the dairy industry, said Julio Giordano, the St. John Family Sesquicentennial Faculty Fellow in dairy cattle management, and assistant professor of dairy cattle biology and management at Cornell University.