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Robotics helping the small family farm

GAYS MILLS - Last Friday, I had an interesting opportunity to participate in something that typically is a bit out of my wheelhouse. I visited a dairy farm. Not just any dairy farm though, I visited a robotic dairy farm.

So as a born-and-bred Wisconsinite, I feel sometimes like I should know a tad more about the dairy industry than I do. However, I am lactose intolerant and don’t fancy myself a milk drinker for the betterment of my gut health. I do indulge in cheese and sour cream, but that's about as far as it goes. So, I admit, I’m not super up to date on milk aside from grabbing a half gallon of Organic Valley whole milk for the men folk at my house once in awhile. 

When I was given the opportunity to visit this robotic milking facility during their open house, I thought it was the perfect opportunity to expand my agricultural horizons. Or at the very least see what the entire hubbub was about. 

Arriving at the farm, I half expected to see the classic big red barn. But instead, I was greeted by something looking more like a very fancy pole shed. I parked my little diesel Jetta among the monster-truck-sized farm trucks of all varieties and tried to look casual walking in. I shuffled in with a crowd of people all sporting hats and jackets announcing their dairy farms name. Women patrolled the Nesco cookers and crock pots, joyously scooping sloppy joes and turkey and stuffing by the spoonful onto the plates of the hungry farmers, many of whom looked to have come right from the barn to this afternoon open house. 

I decided to save my snacking for later and scuttled off into the heart of the building. Stepping in I think the most startling thing was, it didn't smell like cow poo. It smelled just fine. Looking up, I saw several enormous fans doing the work of moving the air around and smelly air out. Looking down, I could see on either side of the building a chain drawn pusher was keeping the poo cleaned up at all times. Gone are the days of shoveling…. 

Down the center aisle shuffled this giant green cylinder, which I later found out was a robotic feed pusher. The impressive contraption apparently keeps feed constantly in its place, eliminating the need for the farmer to bust out the broom in their spare minute to keep the feed piles tidy. 

I stood, looking around for what I came to see, the robotic milkers! I looked around and could see cows disappear into this box and reappear looking no worse for the wear. However, there was no farmer directing them. There was also nothing to indicate what they were doing–so, I decided to go get a closer look. 

It was then I realized I had managed to walk right past the whole operation. I went back and found a large white room with two windows like openings cut into the wall with computer screens and what I came to see, the robotic arms working away.

I gathered next to a crowd of elderly farmwomen and listened to the amazement they expressed at what they saw. The representative from the company that sells the arms informed the crowd that each cow is micro chipped, so the machine knows every detail about each beast.  As soon as they walk in to be milked their stats are shown. How much milk they typically make, how much they’re predicted to make, how much they’ve made in their lifetime, if they’re at risk for mastitis, on and on the things you could find out. The robot even knows exactly the positioning of each cow’s teat in the 200-head herd. It was amazing! 

It was a interesting experience to stand among these veteran farmers and see the look of amazement and wonder on their faces, as well watching this all take place.

The family who implemented this on their farm had great success with a robotic calf feeder five years previous. They decided to go ahead with the robotic milking operation as a way to help their small family farm stand the test of time. With the introduction of technology, they hope that at least one of their sons one day will decide to keep things going and they’ll continue to remain competitive. 

I like to have an idea of where my food comes from. I always try to buy locally as much as possible to be able to put a face with the farmer is great. But as someone slightly disconnected with the world of dairy, I feel like it was an extra privilege to get to see such an impressive operation.  With all of the crisis level for farmers these days, seeing a positive change in the way of dairy farming was refreshing, and I hope for the sake of all the individuals working so hard every day to keep us all fed that it’s a bit of a ray of hope in these hard times.