Happy cow, happy life: Robots relieve dairy farmers of a round-the-clock task

Richard Mertens
Kayla Coehoorn hoses down the floor in the room where two robots milk the farm's 120 cows on demand. Ms. Coehoorn manages the family herd in Angelica, Wis.

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Automation is changing life on American dairy farms, making it more attractive to a new generation of farmers. For about $200,000 each, robotic milkers offer farmers relief from dairy farming’s most demanding chore – twice-a-day milking – and a degree of freedom that was once unavailable. The robots address two big problems. One is a labor shortage: Few Americans, even in rural areas, want the dirty, low-paid work of milking cows. Farmers have increasingly turned to foreign labor, but the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown has made that harder. The other is generational: As older farmers retire, there often aren’t young people willing to fill their shoes. Robotic milking is encouraging them to take another look. Farmers say it improves farm life not only by making the work easier but also by giving them the flexibility to take a day off or attend a daughter’s soccer game. It allows more time for other chores, including looking after the well-being of their cows. “The cows are so contented,” says Kayla Coehoorn, a young, third-generation dairy farmer. “They’re able to do what they want, when they want. Everything is much more laid back.”

Why We Wrote This

Robots are often considered a threat to workers. But for dairy farmers, robots can not only relieve the no-days-off pressure and a labor shortage, they’re helping younger people consider staying on the farm.

Clad in shorts and rubber boots, Kayla Coehoorn hoses down the concrete in her family’s dairy barn. She scatters sweet-smelling feed. Soon she’ll go outside to help her father chop hay for winter.

One thing she won’t do is milk cows. Ms. Coehoorn manages the family’s dairy herd, which until last year meant getting up at 5 for the morning milking, then milking again in the evening. Her father and grandfather did it before her. It’s a routine still followed on small dairy farms across the country.  

Not here anymore. Last year the family built a new barn equipped with a pair of robotic milking machines. The machines milk cows around the clock, without Coehoorn in attendance and when an individual cow is ready. Coehoorn loves it, and so, apparently, do the cows. Studies suggest that robotics increases milk production and improves cow health. Farmers say they get along better with their cows, too.

Why We Wrote This

Robots are often considered a threat to workers. But for dairy farmers, robots can not only relieve the no-days-off pressure and a labor shortage, they’re helping younger people consider staying on the farm.

“The cows are so contented,” Coehoorn says. “They’re able to do what they want, when they want. Everything is much more laid back.”

Automation is changing life on American dairy farms in ways that are making it more attractive to a new generation of farmers. There’s still plenty of work to do, but for about $200,000 each, robotic milkers offer relief from dairy farming’s most demanding chore – twice-a-day milking – and a degree of freedom once unavailable. 

Robotic milking was developed in Europe more than two decades ago and only recently began to catch on in the US. Fewer than 5 percent of American dairy farms have installed robots, according to one estimate. But the machines are growing in popularity, especially on smaller farms.

“It makes the physical work of a dairy farm more manageable by a family unit,” says Douglas Reinemann, professor of biological engineering systems at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

New technology has been changing dairy farming since tractors replaced horses after World War II. But the robots address two big problems. One is a shortage of labor: Few Americans, even in rural areas, want the dirty, low-paid work of milking cows. Farmers have increasingly turned to foreign labor, but the Trump administration’s immigration crackdown has made that harder. 

The other problem is generational. As older farmers retire, there often aren’t young people willing to fill their shoes. Robotic milking is encouraging them to take another look. Farmers say it improves the quality of farm life not only by making the work easier but also by giving them the flexibility to get up later, take a day off, or attend a daughter’s soccer game. It allows more time for other chores, including looking after the well-being of their cows.  It makes farming less arduous and more interesting.

“If you have minimal help or all family labor, switching to this system is going to free up your time a lot more,” says Daniel Diederich, a farmer in Hobart, Wis., and one of the first in his area to adopt robotic milking. “It’s going to make people happier and less stressed. Nobody wants to work yourself to exhaustion and then get up the next day and do it again.”

The shift toward robotic milking is worldwide. In Norway, more than 30 percent of dairy farms have installed robots. The farms are smaller than in the US – the average one has 26 cows, compared with 140 in Wisconsin and 234 in the US – but the motives are the same. “Our son gave us a clear message that we had to choose the robot,” one farmer told Norwegian researchers.

Choosing robots may be a case of adopting new technology to please the young, but it’s in service of an old and still powerful ideal: preserving the bond between family and farm. Wisconsin has more farms than any other state, most of them still small, family-sized operations. 

“You may have to work Sundays and holidays,” says Coehoorn’s father, Wayne Nischke. “But everyone’s always here.” 

The machines have enabled Coehoorn to expand the milk herd from 60 to 120 cows and opened the possibility that her husband, who works off the farm, might someday join the operation full-time. Coehoorn, who is eight months pregnant, thinks to the future: “You can bring your children to the barn and not have them sit there for the duration,” she says.

Cows come two or three times a day to a robot, lured by the promise of food. As each one steps up, a laser-guided, stainless steel arm swiftly washes its udder and applies four milking cups. Computers not only control the robots but compile detailed information about each cow. The whole operation takes only a few minutes. Large farms with older technology have milking parlors where a group of 12 or 20 cows enters in a rush and stands while a worker in a sunken pit goes up and down the line, applying disinfectant and attaching the milking machines by hand. On smaller farms, the cows wait in stalls as the farmer lugs the milking machines from cow to cow.

Robotic milking has its drawbacks. It’s expensive. The machines can break down. The night before, a cell phone alert had roused Kayla at 2 a.m.: One of the robots had stopped working. She went to the barn and replaced a rubber cup that had slipped off. It was an easy fix, but it left her exhausted the next day. “It’s still a lot better than milking twice a day,” she says. 

And the machines displace some workers. Although dairy farmers have struggled to find help, many have one or two regular employees they have been able to depend on. Mr. Diederich said he laid off several employees – all non-family help – when his farm went robotic a few years ago, including a husband and wife. “I felt bad,” he says.

Robots won’t save all farms. Almost four years of low milk prices have plunged many dairy farmers deep into debt and exacerbated the financial uncertainty that also helps drive them out of business. Over the past 10 years, the US has lost nearly 17,000 dairy farms, about 30 percent. Meanwhile, the surviving farms get bigger, often by gobbling up the smaller. “I would not paint robots as a panacea,” says Sarah Lloyd, a dairy farmer in Wisconsin Dells, Wis., who helps train young farmers at UW-Madison. "It’s not solving the financial situation in any way or form.”

Still, farmers and dairy experts say robotics can draw more young people back to farm life and offer new possibilities to families facing hard decisions about the future. “Especially in places like Wisconsin or the Northeast, places with a history of smaller farms, this will help maintain that way of life,” says Ben Laine, a dairy economist. “That’s where you see the biggest impact.”

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