The Cow-Milking Robots Keeping Small Farms in Business

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New Delhi, October 13, 2018: Ever since Nate Tullar was a toddler, when adults asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he knew what to tell them. In the ’50s, Tullar’s grandparents, George and Barbara, had bought Tullando Farm, a dairy farm located along the Connecticut River in Orford, a town in northwest New Hampshire, and started out milking a dozen cows; his parents, Rendell and Karen, had taken up the business after them. Tullar grew up milking and feeding cows, and showing them at fairs. He knew he would be a dairy farmer, too.

These days, this kind of career conviction is one—perhaps the only—logical reason for a young person to become a dairy farmer, especially at the small-scale dairy operations of the Northeast and Midwest. The high cost of barns, farm equipment, and cows, plus volatile prices for milk and feed, reward larger operations that can spread production costs over more animals. In 1987, 202,068 farms produced about 144 billion pounds of milk, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; by 2017, just 40,219 farms made 215 billion pounds of milk. While dairy farms had a median of 80 or fewer cows in 1987, that figure increased to 900 cows more than a quarter-century later. Nowadays, dairies in the West and Southwest can have 15,000 or 20,000 milking cows, Dave Swartz, an assistant director of programs for animal systems with Penn State Extension, told me.

Tullando Farm is among the smaller-scale farms that stayed in business. I visited Tullar, who is 38, on a grey summer day. He greeted me in a Red Sox shirt, Carhartt pants, steel-toed boots, and a red hat, in the Tullando Farm office. Inside hung a yellow and blue banner, stamped with the Tullars’ name, 1956 establishment date, and their enduring motto: “In Cows We Trust.”

While Tullar was growing up, he watched his parents and grandparents expand their herd size, build new barns, and embrace the latest technologies. In 2000, Tullar graduated from the University of New Hampshire’s dairy-management program to begin working full-time at the farm. The dairy’s schedule included six- or seven-hour sessions milking over 400 cows, three times a day. Tullar was on the morning shift—“from four to ten,” he said.

Tullar gradually began helping his parents manage the dairy while his younger sister, Emily Gray, kept track of finances. Tullando Farm has a long history of taking progressive steps to stay in the dairy business, which is why, in addition to adopting best practices for soil health, cattle genetics, and animal comfort, the Tullars decided to computerize as much as their operation as possible. In 2012, they built an enormous new free-stall barn with thermostat-controlled fans and curtains, automated manure-scrapers, and spinning, bristly yellow brushes that cows rub up against when they need a scratch.

In 2014, the Tullar family completed the last, and perhaps most dramatic, step in their long-term improvement plan: They bought eight cow-milking robots called Astronauts, invented by the Dutch company Lely in 1992. For three, 24-hour days after the robots’ arrival, Lely employees helped Tullando Farm herd every one of their 480 cows into and out of the new milking machines, three times each day, to get the animals acquainted. At three months, everything was working the way it was supposed to. These days, a number of European and North American manufacturers sell robotic milkers, which are used by an estimated 4.5 percent of dairy operations in the United States (including Tullando Farm), Joao Costa, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky who researches dairy-precision technology, told me according to theatlantic.com. 

Over the four years since then, changes in the global economy and a glut in the domestic market have placed extra pressure on those, like the Tullars, who have weathered the industry’s longer-term restructuring. Historically, strong prices lead to increased milk production one year, oversupply lowers the price the next two years, then prices rebound. But three years ago, Europe eliminated a quota system that had limited the amount of fluid milk farmers could produce. That action, combined with Russia’s 2014 embargo on European Union products, decimated demand abroad for U.S. dairy products—and it came as people in the U.S. were drinking less milk.

All this interrupted the normal three-year cycle for federal milk prices. Other recent events, such as President Trump’s trade war and Canada’s, China’s, and Mexico’s retaliatory tariffs on U.S. dairy, haven’t improved matters. Last week, however, the Trump administration agreed to sign the new United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, which is expected to open up more Canadian dairy market access for U.S. farmers by 2020.

U.S. dairy cooperatives—businesses owned and operated by member dairy farmers to market their milk—have had to close membership to new farmers and in some cases, even dump surplus milk. “We’ve never really had an extended four-year cycle where there weren’t things we could do in the U.S.,” Bob Wellington, an agricultural economist and a vice president at the northeast dairy cooperative Agri-Mark, said.

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