Cole McLaughlin is the epitome of the modern dairy farmer, keeping tabs on his cows through an office window from a desk rimmed with computers.
“The general plan was to modernize,” he said, explaining the new barn on top of the hill about a hundred yards from the old one.
Out of the corner of his eye, he notices something in the video of the milking room. A robotic arm is having trouble connecting the milking tubes to a cow’s udder.
“I think I have an issue. I’ll be right back,” he said. He returned to the office in less than five minutes. All is back to normal in the dairy barn of the 21st century.
Cows wander into the milking stalls where a robot cleans their udders, connects the hoses, gives the cows a little snack, milks them, disconnects and opens the stall door.
If the computer reads the digital collar (a little like a Fit-Bit) and the cow isn’t ready to be milked, the computer just opens the stall door and she wanders back to the resting and feeding areas.
Everything in the barn is controlled by computers. They lower and raise the shades, control the fans and watering systems. There’s even a drum robot that acts like a waiter, pushing feed back toward the cows so a person doesn’t have to sweep it.
McLaughlin, 33, who took over farm operations from his parents in 2011, built the new barn last year. It’s one of the best things he ever did, making the farm about three times more productive.
In the old barn, it took a full day and at least three people to feed, water, clean, milk and care for 40 cows. McLaughlin said when he hit the end of the day, he was exhausted.
Today, he can do all of that for 120 cows with the same man-hours, or even less in most cases.
“It’s much more efficient,” McLaughlin said. “Most of the time, it’s just me.”
The farm’s production has tripled, he said. It produces about 1,000 gallons a day or 6 million glasses of milk a year.
Improved efficiency and production are important in the economics of farming. Especially since it’s a global market that can fall victim to geopolitics. Some people in farming are concerned as the U.S. places tariffs on foreign manufactured products and other countries like China respond with tariffs on U.S. agricultural goods.
In a commodity market such as milk, robotic systems help lower production and labor costs, which is good for the farmer’s bottom line, said David Swartz, assistant director of programs and animal systems at the Penn State Extension.
“It’s always the low-cost producer who wins,” he said.
Farmers who invest in efficiency and livestock management systems cannot only produce more, but also make more money by producing at lower costs, after the initial capital investments.
“When looking at the initial costs and labor costs, the decision to automate the operation was easy,” McLaughlin said.
Because American farmers are getting better, they have the ability to produce more.
Of course, it can be circular because milk overproduction lowers prices paid to farmers. But if a farm is more efficient, the farmer is keeping more of every dollar made, Swartz said.
Milk prices have been low for about the past four years, McLaughlin said. Currently, prices are at $14.69 per 100 pounds of milk, and a five-year average of $20.
“It makes the economics challenging,” McLaughlin said.
Some farms are more challenged than others because of the price slump. Some dairy farmers want to expand, diversify and modernize, but instead are just surviving, said Scott Fritz, president and CEO of Pennian Bank which does a lot of agricultural lending.
“A lot of people’s modernization and expansion plans have been put on hold,” he said. “It’s a difficult environment for dairy farmers.”
The global market is another factor because about 15 percent of U.S. milk product is shipped overseas, Swartz said.
So far, China’s tariffs have spared milk. That means U.S. exports of cheese, whey, dry milk and butterfat won’t be more expensive to foreign consumers. Tariff hikes can make U.S. goods less competitive and reduce sales. That eventually hurts the local farmer, and the local economy, too.
“It definitely adds to the volatility and uncertainty for our agricultural producers,” Swartz said.
McLaughlin is concerned about those issues, too, but feels he has it locked down.
“The new facility allows me to have more of an advantage in an increasingly competitive global marketplace,” he said.
It’s all a bit science fiction come alive as another cow is milked by the robotic arm. “MOOOO,” she exclaims, oblivious to tariffs and price slumps.
By: Jim T. Ryan