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Column: The Invasion of Robotic Milkers

  • Nate Tullar shows his daughter Addie where the food will come out when cows step up to be milked by robotic milkers. Tullando Farm in Orford, N.H., will start using robotic milkers later this summer. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Nate Tullar shows his daughter Addie where the food will come out when cows step up to be milked by robotic milkers. Tullando Farm in Orford, N.H., will start using robotic milkers later this summer.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

  • Rendell Tullar says hello to his son, Nate and grand-daughter Addie at their farm in Orford, N.H., on June 4, 2014. They are installing robotic milking machines at the farm. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

    Rendell Tullar says hello to his son, Nate and grand-daughter Addie at their farm in Orford, N.H., on June 4, 2014. They are installing robotic milking machines at the farm.
    Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

  • Nate Tullar shows his daughter Addie where the food will come out when cows step up to be milked by robotic milkers. Tullando Farm in Orford, N.H., will start using robotic milkers later this summer. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck
  • Rendell Tullar says hello to his son, Nate and grand-daughter Addie at their farm in Orford, N.H., on June 4, 2014. They are installing robotic milking machines at the farm. <br/>Valley News - Jennifer Hauck

A caravan of flatbeds rolled into the yard at Tullando Farm in Orford late last month bearing a cargo of eight Lely robotic milking systems that, once they’re all installed and powered up, will milk the farm’s 480 prize Holstein cows and render obsolete the milking parlor and all the hard, repetitive work it requires. Tullando will join Vaughan Farms, just across the river in Thetford, where there are already four Lely units on the job, in adopting what is cutting edge technology today but may become commonplace on U.S. dairy farms in a decade or two.

Lely robots don’t come cheap — the first unit costs upwards of $250,000 and additional machines $200,000-plus — but purchasers find the capital outlay on the front end comes back rapidly in labor costs eliminated, increased per-cow production and the vast trove of management information the systems’ software churns out 24/7.

Each day about 14,000 cows are milked in the Upper Valley region, which I define as roughly the circulation area of the Valley News. Over a year’s time they’ll produce about 280 million gallons of milk, most of which is pumped onto tankers and transported to processing plants down country. Add in the slaughter value of cull cows and calves leaving farms and the dairy industry hereabouts is currently worth close to $70 million in economic activity, a lot of which stays close to home and circulates to local businesses.

The past half-century has been a tumultuous time for dairy farming in the Upper Valley, beginning with a collective decision in 1959 by the milk processors of New England to require all producers to purchase bulk tanks. At that time farm milk was transported in 40-quart steel cans, the containers that show up today in low-end antique shops and as back-step geranium pots. These cans were heavy to handle and had to be washed and trucked back to the farm after each use. Essentially by fiat the 40-quart can was abolished and replaced by a stainless steel vessel with its own refrigeration system that could hold milk until it could be pumped onto a tank truck and hauled to market.

For thousands of New England dairy farmers it was a watershed decision: borrow money to buy a bulk tank or get out of the business, and by the hundreds they chose to quit. In the Upper Valley it was the hill farms that disappeared the fastest, a whole culture based on small herds and lots of manual labor. The late East Thetford auctioneer Carlton Gray once lamented to me that he sold out a way of life in the form of the dozens upon dozens of hill farm auctions he conducted in the 1960s and early 1970s.

What followed this exodus has been the basic pattern for the years since. Fewer farms, remaining farms getting larger and larger, technology making dairying more about managing assets and much less grunt labor. An average Upper Valley dairy farm in 1980 would have 40 cows; by 1995 average would be 90 to 100. Now in the 2000s there has come divergence, what might be called disappearing of the middle class. In the Upper Valley there are a couple of farms now milking 1,100 to 1,300 head, a dozen with 500 or so and perhaps 25 with more than 200 cows in production. Then there are the rest, almost all of whom are under 100 cows and they may range down to as few as 25 animals.

The larger farms have their primary focus on continuously increasing volume, and it’s mostly by adding more land and animals and aggressively adopting whatever science and technology can deliver to put more product in the tanker. They’re favored by economies of scale and the efficiencies that come from using bigger equipment.

Smaller dairy farms in the Upper Valley are no less focused on raising per-cow production but most survive on family labor (often unpaid) and multiple income streams such as maple sugaring, firewood sales, snowplowing and, most important, off-farm employment.

Not all science and technology favor the large operation over the small. I have friends in northern Vermont who have a Lely robotic milking system for their herd of 58 cows. Artificial insemination allows a small dairy in the Upper Valley access to the same high value genetics as the mega-dairy in Idaho or Wisconsin. Advances in understanding of how bovines process plant protein and carbohydrates into milk convey benefit across the board.

Underlying all dairy farm activity in the Upper Valley and throughout the United States are vexing market and price pressures created by perverse government policies and the consolidation of the processing and food retailing sectors. An entire ad-free section of the Valley News could be devoted to trying to explain how the U.S. milk pricing system works, and readers would be hard-pressed to understand any of it. Right now an estimated 77 percent of the fluid milk consumed in New England is processed by one company, Dean Foods. Wal-Mart is the nation’s largest food retailer, and aggressively uses its pricing power all the way back through its supply chains.

Dairy farmers currently are enjoying the highest prices for their milk in their lifetimes, and the bump in income has enabled them to pay off debts incurred in 2009 when prices fell to 1979 levels. In a system where there are thousands of producer-sellers and a tiny handful of processor-buyers they know their only means of managing economic risk is through efficiencies in their individual operations.

Our Upper Valley dairy industry is in the middle of a dynamic period, one that points to still more change and challenges ahead. A few items to illustrate:

∎  The aforementioned robotic milking systems. If adoption is widespread they will displace a lot of workers, especially the Mexicans who are the backbone of dairy labor on many farms. Vermont may now have as many as 2,000 Mexicans working on dairy farms and there are plenty employed on Upper Valley operations on both sides of the river. Another major benefit of the robots is their information technology, tracking performance of every animal up to the minute.

∎  Genomics. Identifying which animals will achieve production goals and which need to go to hamburger becomes easier and easier as the science of DNA analysis advances. Genomics are becoming ever more important in crop production, too.

∎  Environmental concerns. We hear all the time about phosphorus and nitrate pollution of streams and lakes, and animal agriculture catches a major share of the blame. Same for methane release from ruminating animals. Farming practices are under increasing scrutiny and change, whether voluntary or forced, is a certainty.

∎  Changing consumer preferences. Each year Americans drink a little less fluid milk per capita, but the steadily increasing amount of milk produced nationally is absorbed into growth categories of foods like pizza, sports drinks and, recently, Greek yogurt. Markets will put more emphasis on the solids in milk rather than just the volume of liquid.

∎  Climate change. Droughts in California, floods in the South, meteorological mayhem all over, shifting climatic patterns spell uncertainty for production of the crops that sustain dairy cows. Many older Upper Valley farmers insist change is already underway, pointing to earlier and earlier maple seasons and fewer periods of several days of clear, dry weather to make hay in the summertime.

∎  Globalization. Farmers in New Zealand and the European Union want their dairy products in U.S. stores, and many other countries do, too. Can we compete with our labor costs, environmental regulations and sanitary standards?

∎  Government policies. So many issues, so hard for farmer voices to be heard in Washington, before the World Trade Organization, even in state capitals.

So how can a robot milk a cow? It’s pretty hard to explain, so call ahead and you’ll probably be welcome to come watch it happen.

Steve Taylor lives and farms in Meriden and contributes occasionally to the Valley News. This commentary was excerpted from remarks he delivered at the recent annual meeting of Vital Communities of the Upper Valley.