As milk prices continue on downward trend, some farms opt to implement new technology.
SILVER SPRINGS — Legend has it there’s a barn full of cows in Pennsylvania which refuse to eat anything but bubblegum-flavored nutritional pellets.
“Cows are weird,” said Russ Klein, a fourth-generation dairy farmer at Silver Meadows, a 750-acre operation located on the western shores of Silver Lake. “They get onto something they like and that’s what they demand.”
Since the installation of his farm’s robotic system at the tail-end of 2014, he’s discovered that his own cows — approximately 200 of them — seem to prefer orange citrus to that quintessential strawberry-banana punch combo (according to experts, that’s a precise breakdown of what you’re tasting when you bite into a wad of gooey, sticky, pink bubblegum). With the cows now on their own milking schedules thanks to implementation of advanced DeLaval milking technology, Klein said they begin to develop individual routines and a heightened curiosity. In other words, their personalities, including their flavor preferences, really start to shine through.
“I think you see the character start to come out in these cows a little bit more,” Klein said of how the barn environment has changed since his two robots entered into service just over two years ago. “Now when you’re in the pen, you’re not there to move the cows to the milking parlor, so they get used to you and their personalities start to come out.”
And so while some public entities have suggested that robotic milking systems are impersonal and make for unpleasant milking situations for cows, in Klein’s experience, he said, “it’s just the opposite.”
“You really are letting the cows dictate what they want during the day and you’re not dictating a schedule for them,” Klein said. “I don’t think either way is wrong, but this barn is extremely calm, quiet and cow-friendly. You really can adapt the robots to any situation.”
It’s also safe to say that the cows prefer robotic milking to hand milking “hands down,” Klein said, especially when they get to chow down on the orange-flavored pellets during a session.
The process, it seems, is simultaneously simple and complex.
“The cows in the pen are free to choose when they want to come in and milk,” Klein said. “They’ll come in if it’s time to be milked, and each cow has an individual setting as to how often she can be milked. If it’s time to milk her, the machine will read her electronic ear tag and proceed with the milking process.”
If it’s not, the machine lets her go and sends her back to the group until she visits again — no harm done.
Most cows in the barn are allowed to be milked every 5.5 hours on average, Klein said, depending on the cow’s milk production, her age and her stage of lactation, among other things. Collectively, they produce about 27,000 pounds of milk every other day.
Sometimes the computer sends out a kind of warning — every day, about two or three cows don’t come up to the milking station within a 12-hour window, and then Klein, his parents or one of the other longtime farm workers have to herd them into the fetch bin.
“They’ll show up on a list and we’ll bring them in here, where the only way out of here is to go through the robot,” Klein said. And that’s just for the cow’s health and safety, really — cows should be milked at least twice a day.
“Other than that, cows are on their own milking schedules,” Klein said. “They’re fed a grain supplement in here (that’s the flavored pellet) and it’s kind of like a candy bar for the cows.”
While it may be a treat to eat, it serves a dual purpose — balancing each cow’s diet with the necessary amount of grain and mixture of nutrients needed to keep her healthy.
Don’t let the process, fool you, though, Klein warned — there’s still plenty of work to do on the farm.
Though the robotics system provides better comfort for the cows and frees up some time that the farmers can devote to other chores, only 100 cows, selected based on their health and a variety of other factors that suggest they don’t need as much hands-on attention, live in the free-flow pens of the robotics barn. The other hundred are still milked by hand back at the old milking parlor, where legacy practices take precedence.
And, of course, there’s plenty of other manual labor to go around no matter what barn you’re in. Twice a day, workers hand-scrape the stalls and alleys in the new barn — it’s more often than that in the milking parlor — feed the cows out of the bunk and do whatever else needs doing, like equipment repairs and crop management.
And things at Silver Meadows weren’t always so advanced, either. Klein’s grandfather and great-grandfather purchased the property in 1954, when cows were milked in a tie-stall barn. That was, and still is, the primary type of dairy cattle housing, but some fault it for its contributions to lameness, swollen hocks and neck lesions in cows.
Growing up, Klein said he never imagined milking technology would be where it is today.
“No, I was just having fun running around,” Klein said. “The first robot I saw, I think, was in 2003. They put a unit in down in Belfast, and I saw that and I was just amazed at what you could do.”
Soon after, he went off to college, where his interests heightened.
“Robotics started to get a little bit more popular in the United States,” Klein explained. “More people put them in and they started working better and better. It took me just shy of 10 years to convince mom and dad we ought to bite the bullet and put a system in.”
The farm decided to install the system after participating in the Cornell PRO-DAIRY Dairy Acceleration Program. The PRO-DAIRY team and cooperative extension experts work with farmers to analyze their businesses and help them develop specific business plans, and the Dairy Acceleration Program has assisted hundreds of farms statewide on a range of issues. In this instance, their focus was on determining from the financial analysis whether it was feasible for Silver Meadows.
“Using PRO-DAIRY and the Dairy Acceleration Program allowed us, before we got started, to get comfortable with our financial numbers,” Klein said. “It was a huge leap for us and I think with doing budget analysis and looking at the numbers and being sure that we were going to be OK, we weren’t going to go bankrupt, it allowed us to see, ‘All right, this is going to be a positive investment for us.”
The PRO-DAIRY program paid for some of the logistics of the new barn design, some engineering costs and some financial analysis, as well as environmental impact studies, Klein said.
“It just brought everything up to date and you kind of dotted your ‘i’s and crossed your ‘t’s with the whole project,” he said. “We did some of the things you maybe would have cut corners with when the program wasn’t available.”
The project was 100 percent financed by Farm Credit East, something Klein said has “been quite a challenge” given the current state of milk prices.
“Since we’ve built the barn and put the robots in, we have not seen a favorable milk price,” Klein said. “I remember doing all of our cost analysis with PRO-DAIRY, where we worked with a five-year average milk price. Since we built the barn, we haven’t seen that milk price, so a little bit of a challenge there.”
But according to Ben Rand, manager of PR and media relations at Cornell University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, it’s a move that will likely help Klein to stay afloat.
“Such an investment is kind of unique given the size of Silver Meadows,” Rand said. “The robotic system … is a more efficient way of milking. I think this is an interesting story due to the challenges facing dairy farmers from lower prices — an example of a farm looking ahead and changing with the times to stay ahead of changing market dynamics.”
Silver Meadows is among just a small number of dairies nationwide to hop on the new tech train — according to Bloomberg, less than 5 percent of dairy farms nationwide have robotics systems — and so even though the economic market has proved challenging, Klein said he’s glad to have made the move.
“We’ve been able to make payments, we haven’t slipped behind,” he said. “I guess even though we’re in a pretty low turn, we’ve been able to cash-flow things. It’s not fun, but at least we’re getting by.”
And, if anything, at least he knows now that his cows like the taste of oranges.
Source: DAILY NEWS