The robots have upended everything, Tina Hinchley says.
It’s been six months since Hinchley’s Dairy Farm near Cambridge moved its 240 cows into a $3 million new barn with robotic milking machines and other technology, with a chief aim of de-stressing both the cows and their owners.
In addition to allowing cows to eat and be milked on their own individual schedules, Hinchley said the automation has allowed her and her husband, Duane, to do something unheard of in more than two decades of marriage. No longer tied to milking cows themselves on a set schedule twice a day, they can go out for fish on a Friday. And catch a movie afterward.
“It is so exciting. We can be normal people and go out for fish,” Hinchley said. “It’s changing our lifestyle, all for the positive.”
Hichley’s Dairy Farm is known regionally, beyond Wisconsin, for its school and other group tours. But it is also a working dairy farm, with end products that include fluid milk and cheese.
The new barn’s design is all about keeping their girls happy.
The Hinchleys’ cows now have waterbed mattresses, fogging machines to keep them cool in the summer, and spinning automated brushes like in a vintage car wash, that they can turn on with a push of a head.
Food is always available, and cows eat when they’re hungry. Lured by cherry-scented protein pellets, they head, one at a time when they’re feeling ready, into one of two high-tech milking boxes.
Their collar sets into motion an unmanned robotic milking machine. It taps into a computer-archived map of their teats and uses lasers to set the machine on their body, gets the milking done in a few minutes, and then releases them. Before the next cow steps in, a robot washes the area down.
Some cows might wander over to be milked twice a day, others up to six times a day. That variation in needs couldn’t be met before, Hinchley said.
In the old barn, “I was holding them back, only milking twice a day,” Hinchley said.
Now, the cows “are doing their own thing, as they feel they need to,” she said.
Lights automatically dim at night and slowly come back on in the morning, mimicking the sun. And a small, Zamboni-like machine scrapes the barn floor every two hours, pushing manure down through slats in the floor to a collection pit below.
“It’s a more cow-friendly environment,” said Doug Reinemann, a UW-Extension milking machine specialist and an associate dean in UW-Madison’s College of Agricultural and Life Sciences. “The social interactions between the cows are a lot more positive. They appear to be much happier and healthier; really calm and not stressed.”
And, with the aid of the high-tech collars fitted to each cow, the Hinchleys can see in real time on a computer screen — or on a phone while they’re out getting fish — a myriad of things including who’s sick, who’s trending up or down in their milk production, who’s going into labor with a calf, each cow’s activity level, and who is a good candidate for insemination.
About 130 different data points can be manipulated; the amount of information “is just amazing,” Hinchley said.
Hinchley can monitor that data in her office in the new barn, picking and choosing which points to follow. At the same time, she can see all corners of the barn on a bank of real-time monitors in the office that show images from cameras mounted around the building. She can pull up all the camera images on her phone, too.
Small to mid-sized farms
Reinemann said Hinchley’s Dairy Farm is one of about 300 small-to-mid-sized dairy farms in the United States, mostly in the upper Midwest, in which cows are now milked in individual robot-controlled milking boxes.
“Virtually all are owner-operator family farms,” with 250 to 500 cows, Reinemann said.
He said robotic milking boxes have been used in northern Europe for about three decades, particularly in the Netherlands. They came to the U.S about 20 years ago; the nation’s first robotic milking barn was in Omro.
Reinemann said other technology has been introduced in the past couple of years for larger dairy farms in which a rotating floor continually moves groups of up to 100 cows toward a milking parlor. It is newer and less-tested technology than the individual milking boxes in use on smaller farms; only two such systems are currently in operation in the United States, he said.
The upgrade lifts off the shoulders of the Hinchleys, now in their 50s with grown children, the most laborious of chores — milking and cleaning up — which they hope will allow them to keep running the farm as they age.
In the old barn, which will now be used to house calves, “I was milking with eight milking machines at the same time, often by myself,” Hinchley recalls.
“It’s a relief from the physical labor of milking,” Reinemann agreed. Users can focus now on “high level management tasks,” like assessing the herd’s overall health via computer, rather than “all raw physical labor.”
That lifestyle shift for farmers “is the reason almost all of them give for being willing to invest in this technology,” Reinemann said. “I have heard that many times.”
Tina Hinchley said the new barn is also an investment in the continuation of their family operation. Their daughter is studying dairy science at UW-Madison, and is also involved in running the farm and in giving tours. It offers her a high-tech, modern space in which she can apply all she’s learned about 21st-century dairy farming.
“It’s something our children can come home to,” Tina Hinchley said.
Reinemann said recent research has shown that small to medium-sized dairy farms installing robotic milking equipment are typically longtime family operations — not startups — that have equity to invest. The switch is done “often at the point of generational transfer,” he said.
“Generations coming into the business would really like to work with robots,” he said.
He said the growth of robotic milking box systems has been steady but slow over the past couple of decades. Depressed milk prices are contributing to that slow pace, keeping many farmers from being able to make the financial investment, he said.
“The cost is still relatively high,” he said. He predicted that will come down “with time, but we are not quite there yet.”
For a lot of dairy farmers “it’s hard to make the investment right now,” he said
“If and when we get some relief on the milk prices I think the adoption of robotic technology will really ramp up. There are a lot of factors favoring it,” Reinemann said.
He said the technology itself “has improved steadily. The machines today are without a doubt better than when they first started.”