Dairy Farms Turn to Robots to Replace Some Workers

3:27 PM, Dec 13, 2012   |    comments
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Gannett Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON - The long-standing paralysis in Congress over immigration reform has some dairy farmers opting to use robots to deal with a shortage of farm workers.

Cornell University estimates about 30 dairy farms in New York are using European-manufactured robots to milk their herds.

The robots are widely used in Europe. The Netherlands alone has about 2,000 in operation, according to Thomas Maloney, who specializes in farm labor at Cornell's Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management.

"There are a lot of people who think we need 60,000 to 100,000 more cows in this state,'' Maloney said. "If we need extra milk, I think that the two leading options for addressing the labor issue are Latino workers and robotics.''

Dairy farmers who have installed the robots predict their use will grow dramatically, especially in New York, where there's increasing demand for milk among Greek yogurt processors.

"The bottom line is - all of this yogurt,'' said George Haier, who recently installed a robotic milking machine on his dairy farm south of Buffalo in Eden.

Haier expects the machine will boost productivity enough to help him pay off his bank loan within 10 years.

It can cost up to $500,000 to install a single robotic milking machine. The price drops to about $200,000 per machine if at least four are installed.

Despite that high initial investment, many dairy farmers are expected to take the financial leap absent a solution to the farm worker problem.

The H2A visa program for temporary farm workers is bureaucratic and doesn't cover dairy workers, who are needed year round.

"If we got workable immigration reform, that would take most of the pressure off on the labor side,'' Maloney said. He expects demand for automatic milking systems to increase if Congress moves slowly or there's an impasse over farm guest workers.

Owners of large dairy farms say they rely on the local labor force to fill many jobs, but often need immigrants to fill entry-level positions that pay around $10-an-hour.

The federal crackdown on undocumented workers has made that increasingly difficult.

Dairy farmers want the H2A program streamlined and overhauled so guest workers don't have to be sent home after several months. But Congress has made no progress developing a bipartisan coalition to push through legislation.

Democratic Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who chairs the Senate Judiciary subcommittee on immigration, has been unable to find enough Republicans to cosponsor an immigration bill.

The GOP's poor showing among Hispanics in last month's presidential and congressional races has pressured the party to work with Democrats on overhauling immigration laws - including programs for farm guest workers - in the next Congress.

Schumer said he's working to "lay the groundwork for taking up immigration early next year.''

"Our goal is a comprehensive bill with a fair path to citizenship,'' he said.

Robotic milking machines involve very little human labor. Workers are needed mostly to monitor the equipment for breakdowns.

When a cow decides she needs to be milked, she walks up to a booth where a mechanical arm cleans her udder and attaches laser-guided couplers to each teat. The cow munches on a high-energy food supplement while being milked.

When the milking process is over, the couplers detach and a second gate opens, allowing the cow back into the corral area.

The robots also scan a computer chip in the cow's ear tag to find out if she hasn't waited long enough since her last milking. If it's too soon, a gate swings open and she's returned to the corral.

Dale Hemminger runs Hemdale Farms, which uses 13 robots to milk 600 cows. He estimates the robots have meant a 20-to-30 percent reduction in his labor needs for one of the most tedious and monotonous tasks on a dairy farm.

"The robots have taken a big chunk of the work out of the barn,'' Hemminger said.

If a robot breaks down and three cows enter the booth without being milked, the machine sends a message to Hemminger's cell phone.

"Eight times out of ten, it's a five-minute fix,'' he said.

The Post family has noted similar benefits from their four robotic milking machines at Post Dairy Farm in Oakfield, about halfway between Rochester and Buffalo.

The robots allow the family to operate their 350-cow dairy farm with only two full-time employees in addition to the five family members who work there, according to Jeff Post.

Dairy farms that rely on traditional milking parlors need many more employees. That's true even for milking parlors with high-tech equipment such as carousels, that rotate in a circle and milk up to 80 cows at a time.

The 60-cow carousel at Lamb Farms Dairy Farm in Oakfield needs five workers plus a "cow runner'' who brings in the herd for milking, according to Matt Lamb, whose family owns the farm. The farm uses 50 workers to maintain a herd of 2,300 cows.

Both Hemdale Farms and Post Dairy Farm use the Lely Astronaut milking robot, a machine manufactured by the Dutch agricultural firm Lely that has been in use in Europe since the 1990s.

At least two other European companies are producing similar machines, including the Swedish firm DeLaval International, and GEA Group of Germany.

Haier, at the dairy farm in Eden, said choosing which machine to buy is like deciding between a Ford and a Chevy.

Haier Dairy uses a DeLaval Milking System to milk 56 cows.

"I think a lot of it depends on the support of your local dealer," he said. "When these things break, they have to be fixed quickly.''

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