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Possible Legislation Could Help Iowa Dairy Farmers Purchase Robots

Karen Bohnert

February 23, 2022

Lack of labor is driving many producers to not only consider implementing new technology, such as robots to milk the cows, but also invest in that technology. That all comes with a hefty price tag, as one single robot that can milk around 60 cows hovers around a quarter of a million dollars.

While milk prices are the highest they have been since 2014, producers will be playing catch up with rising input costs and exploding inflation that has faced them over the last year. Factor in a worker shortage that is facing every industry, dairy included, and producers are crunching the numbers on how they can cash flow pricy technology like robots.

In the Hawkeye State, Iowa State Dairy Association (ISDA) knows its dairy farmers could use some help. Therefore, efforts are well underway to push legislation that would create a state grant or forgivable loan to help its dairy farmers automate various aspects of their nonstop work. This would help offset some of the costs associated with purchasing robots.

According to Mitch Schulte, executive director of the dairy association, there are nearly 850 dairy farms in Iowa with approximately 220,000 milking cows.

“A couple of issues over the last string of years, like processing capacity in Iowa and lack of labor and rising costs of that labor face the dairy industry,” Schulte says.

Coming out of the pandemic, ISDA wanted to help its producers combat these issues. Schulte shares that nearly 50 tanker loads of milk leave the state daily due to processing limitations within Iowa. “We need to provide more on-farm processing to give farmers the opportunity to produce a product of their own,” he says.

Regarding labor, a top concern for producers, Schulte says that if they could lower the overall costs of technology, it could help make dairies more efficient and provide a better quality of life and ultimately sustain more family farms.

Cinnamon Ridge Farms

Located in eastern Iowa, Amy Maxwell with Cinnamon Ridge Farms, milks 220 Jerseys alongside her family with the help of four robots. Maxwell returned to her family farm after graduating from Iowa State University in 2012.

The family upgraded from milking 40 cows in a tie-stall barn to building a state-of-the-art cross-ventilation barn and in 2012 they installed four Lely Astronaut A4 robotic milking systems to milk more than five times the number of cows.

Amy, who was awarded one of the American Jersey Cattle Association’s Young Jersey breeder awards in 2021, also represents the sixth generation on her family’s farm in Donahue. Amy’s love for Jersey cows began when she was little, and while she knew she wanted to return to the farm, her father, John also was aware that a major transformation needed to unfold before his daughter could come back to the farming operation.

“Without the automation of robots, it might have been difficult to convince her to stay with the dairy after high school,” John remarks.

Schulte hopes that the state will offer up to $200,000 per dairy farm to help pay for the new technology. This would make it easier for dairies to afford the pricey technology, like robots and on-farm processing opportunities that would not only help combat labor issues, but also entice the next generation back to the family farm.

“It’s a big deal if we want to keep the next generation in Iowa,” John says.

Cinnamon Ridge sells its milk to Brewster Dairy located in Stockton, Ill., the largest maker of Swiss cheese. Additionally, the Maxwells use a small portion of their milk for on-farm cheese processing that they sell through their farm store, The Country Cupboard. Ideally the Maxwells would like update and grow their on-farm processing. “Our goal is to get to 100% on-farm processing,” John says.

Last week both the House and Senate bills gained approval in each chamber’s agriculture committee, paving a forward step for dairy. “We’re extremely optimistic,” Schulte states.


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