Robot Milkers Bring New Future to Washington Dairy Farmers

Jan 2, 2015

Washington dairy farmers are beginning to use new technology that is transforming how time is spent on the farm. It's also helping provide much needed support for the next generation of small family farms.

Startled because she sees a camera pointing at her, a cow hesitates to walk into a robotic milking station at Bouma Farms in Lynden. Usually, the cows are eager to milk because they get a special grain treat from the robot.
Credit Sarah Eden Wallace

Alan Mesman’s family has been farming for six generations near La Conner. So he knows first hand how hard dairying can be.

“Usually between 5:30 and 6 we start. In the summertime, I mean, you can be going from 5 in the morning til 10 at night.”

That’s seven days a week, 365 days a year. And that’s one reason the number of dairy farmers is decling. The next generation is reluctant to take on this brutal schedule. Especially because there are also huge economic pressures.

“In the dairy industry we run through these cycles where the milk price is below the cost of production. And then you know every time that happens then you lose somebody.”

There used to be nearly 2,000 dairy farms here in the 1960s. Janis DeJager is the current Washington State dairy ambassador for the Washington State Dairywomen. She says farmers are losing ground.

“There are 480 dairy farms right now in Washington state. So it just keeps declining.
It’s very hard to stay in the dairy industry and work. But farming is on our blood so you’re going to work through that. You know, it’s a part of you who you are.”

Last year, Alan Mesman became one of six farmers in Washington state who are trying a new tool that’s helped them cut labor costs and reduce the workload: robots.

“So no one milks cows on this dairy, kind of unusual. No, there are two robots. They run night and day, they don’t ever stop.”

That’s right, robots milking cows.

Lynden dairy farmer Louis Bouma installed a system last spring. To milk, his cows walk into a big steel closet set in the side of the barn. A shiny silver cylindrical tube taller than a man maneuvers a long jointed arm and pincers that deftly pluck scrubbers, long black hoses and suction cups from a rack.

“First it sprays her udder with a disinfectant and then it takes a wash cup and it washes each quarter, each teat and after it’s done with that it goes to the milk cups and attaches the milk cups and she milks…”

Each cow wears a computer chip that help guide the robot. The arms uselaser beams to locate the cow’s teats. Most of the time.

“Oh, it got it on the wrong one. … It’ll be interesting to see if it figures it out. Sometimes it will figure out what it did wrong and put it on the right one and … yup, it did. It is quite amazing what it can do.”

The robots have also made farms more productive.

We’ve gone up at least 10 percent. Yeah, it does great things for production.

The cows love it, too. They’re free to go into the robot station and milk whenever they want. In fact, Alan Mesman says some try to double dip before they’re due and the robot has to gently shoo them off with a puff of warm air.

“So the cows end up being very calm, they’re all kind of on their own schedule and they all kind of wander around in their own little world out there. Yeah, it’s a pretty nice way to run the place.”

Louis Bouma’s two robots handle all the milking on their own -- though they alert him when a human touch is needed.

“It loves texting!”

The robot sends text messages if there’s a problem, say, a cow hangs out too long, kicks the machine, or pulls off a teat cup.

Alan Mesman says one big advantage with robots is he’s no longer tied to the farm.

“We have two very large apps that are on ’droid smartphones. My son was in Aruba and he just logged in from the hotel computer in the lobby in Aruba and sorted cows. Wasn’t even in the country.”

It also means Mesman’s computer-savvy son, Ben, is looking forward to going into dairying.

“Now I have a little more free time to do what I want or see friends or spend time with my wife, so it’s definitely helpful that I get to be out and about a little more than stuck on the dairy 15 hours a day.”

(Janis DeJager)

“I’m an eighth-generation dairy farmer … I hope to be an eighth-generation dairy farmer!
And I want to grow into the dairy industry in which I was born and raised and grew up in.
I just love knowing that your work counts cuz, you know, like, you’re making food. I just love it.

Janis DeJager plans to go to college and then work on her parents’ farm. But it may be different from the way her forebears farmed. It is for Alan Mesman.

“I know my grandpa, he hand milked until he was in his early 40s. So to go all the way from hand milking in a barn with a wooden floor to robotic milking is quite a stretch.”

Robotic milkers are actually common in other parts of the world, with about 10,000 in use throughout Europe and Canada. Now, in Washington, six dairy farms are introducing this new technology into an old-fashioned way of life. So the next time you drink a glass of milk, it might be brought to you by a robot.

Copyright 2014 KUOW