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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Idaho dairies invest in robotic milkers

Cows wait to be milked in the carousel milking parlor of a farm in Caldwell, Idaho. (Kyle Green / Washington Post)
By Sharon Fisher Idaho Business Review

BOISE, Idaho – Faced with an increasing shortage of workers, Idaho dairies are investing in robotic milkers.

“The interest in robotic milking in Idaho is growing quite rapidly,” said John Paetz, regional manager of Lely North America, headquartered in Pella, Iowa. The company has robots installed in three Idaho dairies now, with two more scheduled to come online in July and two more scheduled for later in the year or early next.

In robotic milking, the cow decides when she wants to be milked and goes to the robotic milker. While she enjoys a snack such as a high-energy pellet, a laser-controlled device finds her teats, cleans them and dries them, then attaches and milks. When she’s done, the robot detaches and the cow wanders off. All without human intervention.

“Larger dairies, where they’re employing 20 people, can see a big benefit initially,” Paetz said. “We’re not in the business of displacing labor, but you can do the same job with less labor.”

That’s a big factor, especially in the dairy-rich Magic Valley, where the unemployment rate set new low records in March, according to the Department of Labor. “Our biggest motivating factor was labor,” said Jared Myers, who with his dad are two members of Myers Dairy LLC, in New Plymouth. The dairy has 600 cows, 400 of them on six robots. “If we did any fewer, we wouldn’t have been able to save as much on labor,” while installing more robots wouldn’t have been much more efficient, he said.

Idaho has been behind the curve in implementing robotic milking, partly because Lely, one of the major vendors, has been migrating its marketing across the country after starting in western Europe and then heading to Canada and the East Coast. “We just started looking at the western region in the last five or six years,” Paetz said. “We don’t want our infantry to outrun our lines of support.” Across the U.S., robots are now being used in 5 percent or fewer of the dairies, he said. “But it’s accelerating.”

Jon Maughan

Idaho also doesn’t have many robotic milkers because of the large size of many of its dairy operations, said Jon Maughan, managing director of the midmountain region for Rabo AgriFinance, a subsidiary of Rabo Bank, which has $2.1 billion of agriculture loan assets in the region and has funded one robotic dairy so far. Most present-day robotic milkers are set up for 1,000 cows, while some Idaho dairies have up to 10,000 cows, he said.

While results vary, Lely typically sees a total reduction in operating cost and cost of production of $1 to $1.50 per hundredweight, which is considerable considering the low price of milk paid to dairymen now, Paetz said. The milkers are a help to farmers who can’t find help because of economic conditions, including the crackdown on the undocumented workers upon which the industry depends.

There’s also a lifestyle advantage, particularly for family dairies, because robotic milkers free farmers who were previously tied to the dairy for twice-daily milkings. “When I got into robots, it was typically smaller people,” Paetz said. “What they were looking for was a lifestyle decision – they wanted to go to the basketball game, or go to a wedding and stay for the reception.”

That said, the systems are expensive. Myers paid $180,000 for each robot, plus a couple of hundred thousand dollars on a new barn to house the “robot cows.” “It’s added about a dollar per hundredweight, and saved about 70 cents of labor per hundredweight,” he said. “So that’s still 30-40 cents additional cost for the cost of equipment, which we’re hoping to make back in the other benefits that take a little more time to realize and are harder to measure.”

Rick Naerebout

“It’s a very capital-intensive investment, so we’re seeing it as dairymen are upgrading their facilities,” said Rick Naerebout, CEO of the Idaho Dairymen’s Association. He added that adoption might be delayed in Idaho because there isn’t a good way to retrofit the dairy parlor typically used in Idaho with the robotic milking technology.

The cost has discouraged some dairymen, Maughan said. “Compared to a conventional operation, you’re probably looking at three to five times, on a per-cow basis,” he said. “If you multiply it by 5,000 cows, it’s a significant capital investment.” But he said he expects it to scale over time. “Right now, we’re at the tip of the iceberg about what it can bring to the dairy industry in the future.”

A FitBit for cows

In addition to its other advantages, the regular monitoring by the robotic milkers helps the dairyman keep a better eye on his herd and what’s going on with them. Think of it as a FitBit for cows.

“It collects activity information, like how many steps they take, rumination information, and how many times the cow’s jaw moves,” Myers said. “It collects the milk weight on every milking. If any of those numbers go drastically up or down from that cow’s baseline, it gets flagged for you to check. It’s really helped us manage the cows better and catch problems sooner.”

The systems also help keep cows producing more. “We get a lot more cows pregnant,” Myers said. Each cow has a “heat probability,” calculated based on how many steps she takes in a day and how much she’s eating. “If the number of minutes per rumination drops, combined with her activity going up, it increases the probability she’s in heat,” he explained. “Over time, getting more cows pregnant, and pregnant sooner, is going to be beneficial.”