Iowa Public Television


Robots in the Parlor

posted on January 21, 2011

America's dairy producers can expect a second consecutive year of modest economic growth, according to a University of Wisconsin study released this week.

Researchers at the University of Wisconsin acknowledged feed costs will be higher -- at least the first half of 2011 --, but they predict growing demand will lead to increased revenue for producers.

Higher prices are a welcome development for dairy producers. Prior to the global recession, strong foreign demand pushed dairy prices to record highs. But in 2009, the export market all but went dry. And dairy producers responded by slaughtering an average of 50,000 dairy cows a week as prices plummeted well below the average cost of production.

Despite the downturn, some dairy producers continue to invest more capital in their operations. A case in point can be found in Minnesota, where one innovator has solved a persistent man-made problem by turning to a machine.

And as Market to Market Producer Chris Gourley discovered last fall, when it comes to technological innovations, there are no sacred cows. Andrew Batt explains.

Third generation dairy farmer Doug Suhr, milks cows on the same farm his grandfather purchased in 1948. Suhr took over the farm from his father 10 years ago and made a major change in how the dairy traditionally operated.

Doug Suhr, Kasson Minnesota: "My Grandpa turned 90 in February and one day I was out cutting hay across the road and I seen him pull in and I thought uh-oh this ain't going to be good. The next thing you know I hear my phone rings. He calls me and says we got a major, major problem."

Two years ago, Suhr got rid of his hired help and purchased a robotic milker. His dairy herd of over 100 Holsteins now is milked 24/7 by a system that all but runs itself.

Doug Suhr, Kasson Minnesota: "So, I come running home here and I said what -- what's the problem. "Oh, never mind it -- it got it on. She's okay. I don't know, he must think the cows are going to quit going though or something but he gets awful worked up."

For thousands of years dairy farming has been a labor intensive, hands-on occupation. Numerous mechanical means of milking were developed 150 years ago, but it wasn't until 1923 with the invention of the surge milker that any technological development was accepted with any success.With the surge milker, dairy farming became less hands-on. It remained however very labor-intensive.

Chad Huyser, Director of Sales, Lely USA: "It was a 365 day a year, you know 7 day a week, 2 to 3 time a day process that took a number of hours and what Lely really saw was an opportunity to provide some labor savings."

Chad Huyser is the Director of Sales for Lely USA. Since first introducing robotic milkers in 1992, the Netherlands based company has sold over 9,000 robotic milkers worldwide.

Chad Huyser, Director of Sales, Lely USA: "We are by far and away the world leaders as far as a total number of units that are installed on a global basis. Again being a pioneer of the technology and inventing it over 15/16 years ago we have a tremendous amount of experience. Certainly this technology doesn't eliminate all the labor but best estimate conservative-we say it's probably 50 to 60% of the manual labor involved in the diary process."

The Suhrs purchased a couple of robotic milkers from Lely two years ago when they were looking to upgrade their dairy. It took them nearly a month to train the cows to use the robot or what is sometimes referred to as a voluntary milking system or VMS.

Tina Suhr, Kasson Minnesota: "The first three weeks of no sleep. That was a surprise. We knew that was coming but saying it and then doing it is…"

Doug Suhr, Kasson Minnesota: "One of us was out here 24 hours a day but within three weeks probably three quarter of the cows are walking through on their own."

Once trained, it's up to the cow to decide when it's milked. Sensors in the floor of the robot determine the position of the cow and the utter is cleaned with brushes. Lasers then locate each teat so suction cups can be attached. Once the milking is finished, another gate swings open and the cow exits the robot. The whole process is food driven with the cows receiving a feed concentrate while being milked.

Doug Suhr, Kasson, Minnesota: "Cow chow. Yep, real high energy, real sweet treat, you know, that's their candy. So they have their-- they have their meat and potatoes out at the bunk and then they get their candy bar once they go into he robot."

Problems they were having with labor was one reason the Suhrs decided to go robotic. According to the Suhrs, workers would show up late or not at all and at times would abuse the animals. In six years, they went through twelve different employees.

Tina Suhr, Kasson, Minnesota: "And we're small enough, you know, that we only had one hired hand. So, if he doesn't show up it's not like your other hired hands could pick up his slack because we only had one. That stress level is totally eliminated and you can't really put a price on that."

The Suhrs say that the payments they make for the robots are equal to what they used to have to pay their hired help. Tina Surh says she spends about an hour a day at the computer where she monitors not only the quantity of milk each cow gives but also the quality.

Tina Suhr, Kasson, Minnesota: "If she's starting to spike in her semantic cell or her conductivity, what it's called with the robots, our kind of robots. It will give you a flag and you can actually go to the computer and it will tell you what the quarters are individually. So, you can actually find which quarter is bad."

Since sensors in the robot measure each quarter of the udder, the robot will quit milking a quarter instead of continuing to milk a dry udder. According to Lely, cows milked by a robot remain productive longer and produce more milk.

Norman Mett is the veterinarian for the Suhr's herd and was there for the transition to robotics. He believes the cows aren't much different than cows milked in a conventional parlor.

Norman Mett, Dodge County Veterinarian: "They're getting fed with TMR like cows down the road are. They're cleaned twice a day like we ordinarily would in a conventional herd. So, I don't see a lot of differences. Maybe a little more relaxed. A little milder -- they don't ever get chased. You know so they never get excited. It's a good thing for them."

While the robot has been good for the dairy it has been a blessing for the Surh's. What was once a hands-on labor intensive way of life has changed enough with the addition of the robot to allow for a lot more family time. Whether it is being able to attend athletic events as a family, or taking time for a water fight while getting ready to attend the county fair, the dairy no longer needs a person to operate 24-7. And it could be that a robot makes a difference in whether the next generation of Suhrs will keep the dairy in the family.

Sierra Suhr: "Before we got it in here we had a lot of chores to do. Not a lot of free time to play and have water fights and all that fun stuff."

Gabrielle Suhr: " And we had a -- we were out late milking the cows because we didn't have the robotic milkers."

Sierra Suhr: "We were out until -- sometimes 11 o'clock at night.

Gabrielle: Yeah.

Doug Suhr, Kasson, Minnesota: "Even if we had-- had a boy, you. know, it would be hard to say whether they'd want to take over but I think this will definitely help their decision. It will make their decision a little -- little bit easier "

For Market to Market, I'm Andrew Batt.


Tags: agriculture cattle dairy farmers Minnesota news robots stress technology