Granite Geek: At some dairy farms robots milk the cows

By DAVID BROOKS

Monitor staff

Published: 10-25-2022 6:14 PM

Automation of the workplace can make life easier. Just ask Walker Fitch about the downright luxurious change it brought to his life as a dairy farmer.

“I get up at 5 now,” Fitch bragged during a recent tour of his Milford farm. “It used to be 4.”

He could sleep later but a lifetime habit is hard to break. Turning to his father, David, he mused: “I think I was 12 when you started getting me up at 4.”

Fitch, 48, is the fifth generation to run the dairy at an intersection known throughout the region as Fitch’s Corner. The farm has gone through some rough times and some good times but it’s never seen anything quite like the two Lely Astronaut machines that were installed last spring, making it the second dairy farm in New Hampshire to automate its miking process after Tullando Farm in Orford.

With a combination of hydraulics, lasers, electronics and suction, the $420,000 setup determines which cow has entered the stall to feed via the RFD chip hanging around her neck, cleans the teats twice with little brushes that look like they came from a Matchbox car wash, attaches nozzles and drains 8 or 9 gallons of milk that gets pumped to various places depending on factors such  as whether the cow is on antibiotics. Then the cow – mostly Holsteins plus an occasional Jersey and Brown Swiss that Fitch likes because they’re “something different to look at” – is free to wander back to the barn.

This happens as often as four times a day for each cow and, importantly for the farmer’s workload, happens on the cow’s schedule. They can get milked whenever they feel like it rather than on the rigid twice-a-day schedule that is the usual New Hampshire 365-day dairy routine. “Whenever” includes the middle of the night.

“This tells me the cows that came in while I was sleeping,” Fitch noted, pointing at one of many screens of data provided by the system.

Lack of labor

Lely is a Dutch farm-implement company specializing in dairies. It has been selling versions of its robot milker, which it calls Astronaut, since 2005 – the Fitchs’ version was introduced in 2018. The company says more than 20,000 have been installed worldwide, including three in New Hampshire, with Scruton’s Dairy in Farmington being the latest addition.

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Automation is showing up on many farms because of the labor situation. Self-driving tractors were on the market long before self-driving cars, while automated systems for planting, harvesting and even weeding crops (using lasers!) are all over the place. The ability for automated systems to do something as delicate and complicated as cleaning a cow’s udder and attaching suction cups to the correct teats, when every cow is slightly different in size and shape, shows how far it has gone.

Fitch says cows, which don’t like novelty, took some time to get used to the system and says the first few months of operation after installation six months ago were tough, even though he’s glad to have it now. Each cow must be manually placed in the system for the first usage to help the system’s sensors determine the geometry of that animal. After that it adjusts automatically, detecting which cow has entered the stall to feed via RFID chips in collars they wear.

A few cows are still unenthusiastic and have to be shooed in to get milked. The Lely system alerts him as to which ones they are.

Dairy farms are a precarious business in New Hampshire where land for hay and corn is expensive and farms are small, lacking the efficiencies of scale that keeps costs low in huge farms further west. New Hampshire had 829 commercial dairy farms in 1970 but but more than 90 percent have closed: There were just 95 in 2020, according to Granite State Dairy Promotion. Even Vermont, which has long been New England’s dairy leader, is struggling because of consolidation in the processing of organic dairy products, the state’s specialty.

So why did a fairly small farm – Fitch milks about 100 cows – make a big capital investment like this? Labor.

“I can’t get help, can’t keep help,” said Fitch, who formerly had two part-time employees.

This is a common complaint among businesses since the pandemic hit, but it particularly resonates with farms, which have been struggling to keep help for years. The pay for agriculture workers usually isn’t great, benefits are rare and the work is physical, requiring more training and expertise than you might think. Even with two staffers, Fitch still had to do the morning milking himself as well as oversee all the other aspects of running a farm, from spreading manure to planting and harvesting, to repairing equipment, to dealing with taxes and financing.

Looking at it that way, getting robots to do part of the work was almost a no-brainer.

“They never yell, never get sick. Cows can kick them and they don’t mind,” he said. That last point isn’t minor: Although dairy cows are mild-mannered they weigh a ton, literally, and can do serious damage without meaning to. Fitch broke two ribs this year because a cow leaned on him the wrong way.

Increased production

“Everybody’s going this way,” Walker Fitch said of automation. “McDonalds, Walmart. I used to scoff at self check-out, but now I understand.”

Financially it also makes sense, he said, despite the hefty cost. Fitch says payments for the unit are comparable to savings in salaries, which he had to increase during the pandemic-fueled hiring competition. Further, cows produce more if they’re being milked three or four times a day instead of twice. David Fitch says production has gone from about 70 pounds per milking to about 80 pounds “and should go higher.”

Fitch hopes that the farm makes it to six generations and that his son, 11, or daughter, 8, will step into his role. But just in case, he had the milking barn rebuilt during the Lely installation with an eye toward the possible demise of the dairy, since it’s big enough to hold trucks for other industries. For the time being, however, it’s business as usual with a robotic twist.

The old milking parlor will eventually be converted into an area for certain cows who will be directly there by hydraulic gates triggered by the automated system. Other changes may be coming as time and money allow.

Still, after a lifetime of doing things one way it can be a little hard to change, even for the better.

“I’d be lying if I said I didn’t miss it a bit,” Fitch admitted.

Not that he’d go back.

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