Milking Robots: The Dairy of the Future?

Written by Kathleen Merrigan, GW Food Institute Director

My colleagues say I’m a woman obsessed with milking robots and they are not wrong.  I’m trying to figure out how milking robots may help our struggling dairy industry, particularly the kind of small-scale, pasture-based dairies that surrounded my home growing up in Western Mass.  I’ve enlisted Ariel Kagan, on our staff, and two GW students, Sarah Pagan ‘17 and Eilish Zembilci ‘16 to join me and undertake some research to help us all learn more.

First, why do I seem so focused on small farms?  The answer is because the vast majority of farms in this country are small – in 2015, 90% of U.S. farms grossed less than $350,000 and accounted for half of all farmland.  The USDA Economic Research Service has a wonderful service, called Charts of Note which can be found here. Earlier this year, this chart about farm types was posted.

Share of U.S. farms, acres operated, and value of production by type of farm, 2015

Share of U.S. farms, acres operated, and value of production by type of farm, 2015

The second reason I’m interested in robots is because dairy farming is tough for small farms. There’s never a day off, unless you have hired labor, which is not easy to find or afford.  This is a complex discussion – more than a blog, but consider this one fact – small farms typically milk twice a day, whereas farms with at least 500 cows, and more income to hire labor, milk three times a day.  More milk, generally more profit.

Labor use and labor productivity on U.S. dairy farms by herd size, 2010

Young people going into farming today are very tech savvy and are likely to adopt new innovations, assuming they are proven and financially within reach. Mostly milking robots have been adopted in Europe. In the US they’re beginning to catch on, especially in the upper Midwest and the Northeast. Milking robots are expensive, around $200,000 for a machine that services about 70 cows. But what about a pasture-based system – do robots fit?  Hence our research. I will have more to report early next year, but as a start, my team went to the World Dairy Expo in Madison WI to meet representatives of the four companies producing milking robots and to find farmers to interview.  So far my GW team has traveled to four farms in three states to see, first-hand, how the robots work and to interview the farmers who own and operate them.

This is what I love about being at a university – joint exploration with my students.  Stay tuned for the results of our study and our policy recommendations.

In Clear Spring MD, the farmers have installed three robotic milkers for their herd of 150 Holsteins. They also added an automatic feed pusher, which brings the silage and hay up to the troughs every hour. The Lely Juno robot is welcomed by the cows as it slowly drives down the alley.

In Clear Spring MD, the farmers have installed three robotic milkers for their herd of 150 Holsteins. They also added an automatic feed pusher, which brings the silage and hay up to the troughs every hour. The Lely Juno robot is welcomed by the cows as it slowly drives down the alley.