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Tossed Out

Milking every hour out of the day

DeLaval sells a robotic milker. They call it their Voluntary Milking System. (Courtesy DeLaval.)

Got Milk? All I have to do to get some is open up my fridge and pour myself a nice, big glass of chilled wholesome (1 percent) goodness. Of course, it’s a bit more complicated for the dairy farmer that made my bowl of Cinnamon Toast Crunch possible.

Dairy farming is grueling work. Most dairy cows have to be milked two or three times a day and many dairies raise hundreds of cows in order to stay in the black. Forget farm upkeep, animal health and husbandry, that’s hours and hours of milking.

Repetitive, dirty, time-consuming, expensive work? That’s a perfect place to introduce automation and robotics into farming. As part of our Farmer of the Future series, I looked at where this technology is taking us. While I found that human farmers aren’t yet in danger of being booted off their land in favor of robots, I found dairy farmers who have embraced robotics are seeing dramatic changes in their work life.

Ag technology company DeLaval already sells a robotic milker. Mark Futcher, DeLaval’s product manager for automatic milking, says it’s a natural fit.

“We tend to deliver solutions that respond to the need or the ask of the industry,” Futcher said. “Farming, and more specifically dairy farming, is not immune to advances in technology that will assist the business or farm in becoming more profitable and productive, and ultimately sustainable, over time.”

Most dairies already use some form of automation – usually a milking machine that attaches to a cow’s udder. I spoke to one farmer in Missouri who told that me if he milked all of his cows by hand he’d “look like Popeye.” Robotic milkers take milking machines a step further, using a robotic arm to attach milking equipment, prepare and clean the udders and monitor the cow’s health. It’s actually really cool to watch.

See more from our Farmer of the Future series

DeLaval told me they haven’t installed too many robotic milking systems yet in the U.S. and I wasn’t able to get to a farm that operates one, though I’m hopeful I’ll be able to see one for myself soon. For now, you can get an idea what a robotic milking system is like by watching this DeLaval video. (I’ll be able to get a more in-depth, less promotional, look in person.)

Farmers, and dairy farmers in particular, don’t get a lot of time off. Cutting down on hours of labor by using advanced machines could help give farmers a much needed rest.

“Just this past Christmas we had a customer of ours that had started up two of our (robotic milkers) with their herd,” Futcher told me. “That Christmas morning was the first time that gentleman had ever been witness to his children finding their Christmas stockings.”

Fewer hours in the barn: A nice present robots might be able to deliver many farmers.