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Manual labor problems drive Midwest dairy farmers to more tech solutions

Nat Williams - Illinois Farmer Today


June 16, 2021


Paul Meyer looks out over his dairy herd from the comforts of an upstairs office. The Clinton County, Ill., dairyman switched to a fully automated system 10 years ago and hasn’t looked back.


ST. ROSE, Ill. — Paul Meyer still gets to work at 4 a.m. every day. But he doesn’t face the same stresses he did a decade ago.


That’s when the Clinton County dairy farmer replaced his parlors with robotic milkers and an automated feeding system. He still works long hours, but he appreciates the valuable assistance from workers who never call in sick, get tired or complain.


He’s convinced he made the right decision 10 years ago. But the transition is not always seamless.


“It’s a piece of equipment that operates 24 hours a day. You have to come to terms with that,” Meyer said.


Modern technology has its attractions. But old-style dairies are still plugging along, and high-tech doesn’t necessarily mean high profit.


“Some of our more profitable farms tend to be on the low-tech route,” said Larry Tranel, a dairy specialist with Iowa State University Extension in eastern Iowa. “We have some very successful small- to medium-size farms that would not be classified as high tech. They have what we would call parlor technology. There continue to be low-cost ways to remodel facilities, to milk cows. That will continue to be a part of the dairy industry.”


Fewer than 5% of dairy farms in the Midwest incorporate robotic milkers, according to an Iowa State University study.


The return on investment in robotic milk production — Meyer’s four machines cost $200,000 each — varies. Production can be higher. A study by Western Illinois University determined cows milked by robots produce five additional pounds of milk daily. Some benefits are less tangible, such as flexibility for the producer. But the biggest impetus driving the trend may be difficulty finding labor, an issue increasing in agriculture overall.


“Labor efficiency is probably the No. 1 thing that I talk to farmers about when they’re trying to remodel their facilities,” Tranel said. “Labor availability is going to be a huge issue across the country.”


It is the main reason Meyer installed the four DeLaval milkers and feeding system on his farm.

Agriculture accounts for a quarter of emissions worldwide every year and the biggest single contributor within that is livestock.


“That was 90% of it. Trying to keep enough help has been difficult,” he said. “Labor gets to be more of a challenge all the time.”


Like many producers, Tony Graves has considered making the switch, but is standing pat for now. Graves milks about 1,200 cows on his dairy in Richland County, Illinois.


“We have considered it,” Graves said. “The biggest issue for me is labor. That’s a huge concern. People don’t want to work.”


The dairy industry has a long way to go before robotic milkers are as common as GPS technology, yield monitors and planting drills. Dairy producers don’t need to go high-tech to make ends meet.


“Robotic milking is definitely a nice technology, but there are good alternatives to that,” Tranel said. “We have a lot of spreadsheets available to help producers make decisions.”


But if the labor issue continues to plague the industry, producers are increasingly likely to take a hard look at modernizing their operations.


Meanwhile, many who have made the jump extol benefits above and beyond production and profits. Meyer likes being able to monitor his herd from a distance when necessary. He keeps track of day-to-day operations from his office.


“I can look at my computer screens here and check what’s going on in the barn, what my stall time is,” he said. “Then I go to another graph here. This one checks my cows for mastitis and tells me what’s wrong.”


He noted that he was able to check his cows while visiting his daughter on the other side of the continent. He monitored his operation while in Sweden at DeLaval’s headquarters. Meyer also works as a dealer for the company, and has delivered eight systems to Illinois farms.


Paul Meyer checks graphs that capture information on each of his 220 cows, including milking volume, weight and body temperature.Photo by Nat Williams


He acknowledges that there is a learning curve involved in transitioning to a fully automated dairy.


“I tell the farmer it’s usually two to three weeks for the cow and two to three years for the farmer,” Meyer said. “The farmer is the hardest one to train. The cow is easy to train.”


The move to the robotic milkers was nearly a necessity. A shoulder injury sustained in a farm accident limited his ability to physically milk his cows.


“Before, even as much as I wanted to be in the barn, I couldn’t do it all the time,” Meyer said. “And as production went up and we moved to (three-times-a-day) milking, it was just way too much labor.


“When we milked in the morning, it took us three to three-and-half hours. Now I come out, walk to the barn, look at the cows, make my cup of coffee and take 20 minutes by the computer to check my cows.”


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