On These Dairy Farms, Cows Decide When to Be Milked
April 28, 2014
EASTON, N.Y. — Something strange is happening at farms in upstate New York. The cows are milking themselves.
Desperate for reliable labor and buoyed by soaring prices, dairy operations across the state are charging into a brave new world of udder care: robotic milkers, which feed and milk cow after cow without ever touching one with a human hand.
Scores of the machines have popped up across New York’s dairy belt and in other states in recent years, changing age-old patterns of daily farm life and reinvigorating the allure of agriculture for a younger, tech-savvy — and manure-averse — generation.
“We’re used to computers and stuff, and it’s more in line with that,” said Mike Borden, 29, a seventh-generation dairyman, whose farm upgraded to robots, as others did, when disco-era milking parlors — the big, mechanized turntables that farmers use to milk many cows at once — started showing their age.
“And,” Mr. Borden added, “it’s a lot more fun than doing manual labor.”
The view is improved as well. “Most milking parlors, you see, you really only see the back end of the cow,” Mr. Borden’s father, Tom, said. “I don’t see that as building up much of a relationship.”
The cows seem to like it, too.
Robots allow the cows to set their own hours, lining up for automated milking five or six times a day — turning the predawn and late-afternoon sessions around which dairy farmers long built their lives into a thing of the past.
With transponders around their necks, the cows get individualized service. Lasers scan and map their underbellies, and a computer charts each animal’s “milking speed,” a critical factor in a 24-hour-a-day operation.
The robots also monitor the amount and quality of milk produced, the frequency of visits to the machine, how much each cow has eaten, and even the number of steps each cow has taken per day, which can indicate when she is in heat.
“The animals just walk through,” said Jay Skellie, a dairyman from Salem, N.Y., after watching a demonstration. “I think we’ve got to look real hard at robots.”
Many of those running small farms said the choice of a computerized milker came down to a bigger question: whether to upgrade or just give up.
“Either we were going to get out, we were going to get bigger, or we were going to try something different,” said the elder Mr. Borden, 59, whose family has been working a patch of ground about 30 miles northeast of Albany since 1837. “And this was something a little different.”
The Bordens and other farmers say a major force is cutting labor costs — health insurance, room and board, overtime, and workers’ compensation insurance — particularly when immigration reform is stalled in Washington and dependable help is hard to procure.
The machines also never complain about getting up early, working late or being kicked.
“It’s tough to find people to do it well and show up on time,” said Tim Kurtz, who installed four robotic milkers last year at his farm in Berks County, Pa. “And you don’t have to worry about that with a robot.”
The Bordens say the machines allow them to do more of what they love: caring for animals.
“I’d rather be a cow manager,” Tom Borden said, “than a people manager.”
The machines are not inexpensive, costing up to $250,000 (not including barn improvements) for a unit that includes a mechanical arm, teat-cleaning equipment, computerized displays, a milking apparatus and sensors to detect the position of the teats. Pioneered in Europe in the 1990s, they have only recently taken hold in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and New York, which is a leader in the production of Greek yogurt and the third-largest milk producer in the country.
Kathy Barrett, a senior extension associate at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences at Cornell University, credited a recent surge in milk prices with motivating dairy owners to seek new ways to improve their farms — and farm life.
“It’s really the flexibility of not stopping doing hay because at 3 o’clock you have to go milk,” Ms. Barrett said.
Ms. Barrett said about 30 farms in New York had installed more than 100 robotic milkers. Two European manufacturers, Lely and DeLaval, said they had installed hundreds more across the country. California, the nation’s leading dairy producer, has been a curious holdout, in part because there were problems at some farms that adopted the technology in its early years.
The president of Western United Dairymen, Tom Barcellos, who milks some 1,300 cattle at his operation in Tulare County, Calif., said he was intrigued by the robots but worried that they would be too slow to keep up with the needs of a large herd.
“They just don’t milk enough cows to be economical,” Mr. Barcellos said. “You might milk 40 cows an hour. We can do 80.”
But farmers said output generally increased with robots because most cows like being milked more often. (To allow lactation, cows are kept in a near-constant state of impregnation.)
Animal welfare advocates give the new machines a guarded thumbs-up. “Not being milked hurts,” said Paul Shapiro, a vice president of the Humane Society of the United States. He said letting cows move more freely was also an improvement on older methods that involved tying cows to stanchions.
The machines have mellowed both the cows and much of the routine on the Bordens’ farm — though the humans have received the occasional distress call from their mechanized milkers.
“It’s a machine, so it breaks down,” Mike Borden said. “But people get sick, too.”
All of which has the Bordens considering more robots, and dreaming of the perquisites that enhanced automation could bring.
“I don’t think I’m ever going to sleep in real late,” Tom Borden said. “But if we could roll it back another hour, that would be great.”
Nathaniel Brooks for The New York Times
今年29歲的麥克·博登(Mike Borden)是第七代奶場主。「我們熟悉電腦之類的東西，擠奶機械人跟那些更像是一脈相承的。」當迪斯科年代的擠奶間開始顯露出過時的跡象時，他家的奶 場也和別家一樣，升級採用了擠奶機械人。擠奶間是大型的機械化旋轉平台，能讓奶農同時給許多奶牛擠奶。
擠奶機械人花費不菲，一台的價格高達25萬美元（約合 160萬元人民幣），還不包含牛欄改造的費用。每台機械人包含一條機械臂、乳頭清潔設備、幾塊電子顯示屏、一套擠奶器具，以及數個探測乳頭位置的感應器。 這種機器首先於上世紀90年代在歐洲試水，最近才在賓夕法尼亞、威斯康星和紐約三州流行開來。紐約州的希臘酸奶產量高居全美榜首，牛奶產量則位居第三。
康奈爾大學(Cornell University)農業與生命科學院的高級推廣教育助理凱茜·巴雷特(Kathy Barrett)認為，近期的奶製品價格飆升激勵奶場主尋求新的途徑來改進自己的農場——並改善務農的生活。
西部乳業聯合會(Western United Dairymen)會長湯姆·巴塞洛斯(Tom Barcellos)在加州圖萊里縣的自家農場養了1300頭牛。他表示對機械人很好奇，但擔心它們動作太慢，不能適應大群奶牛的需求。
動物維權人士謹慎地對這種新機器表示歡迎。美國人道協會 (Humane Society of the United States)副會長保羅·夏皮羅(Paul Shapiro)說，「奶不擠出來會很疼。」他還表示，讓奶牛更加自由地走動也是一種進步，因為舊方法需要將奶牛綁到柱子上。