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Robot invasion: Farmers embrace technology

July 10,2016 20:11

"My grandfather, who was a dairy farmer in the 1960s, was pretty pro-technology for that time period," said Olivia Platt, owner, of EsBern-OM Holsteins, of New Columbia, Pennsylvania. The farm is about 70 miles north of the state's capital, Harrisburg ...and more »

Modern farmers incorporate — often out of necessity — the latest breakthroughs in science and technology into their farming practices. It's almost a necessity for the sake of streamlining business and becoming more profitable, said several Pennsylvania farmers.These days a farmer can go to the internet and shop for equipment anywhere in the country, whereas in the past, they'd have to jump in their car and see it in person for themselves, explained Greg Hostetter, Pennsylvania Deputy Secretary of State for Animal Agriculture. "Farmers can see schematics, use Skype to talk to veterinarians or nutritionists, get real time weather data, use GPS to guide their large operating equipment, use robotics to run their traffic — even use robots to milk their cows."In many ways, 21st-century farmers are not so different from the farmers who preceded them. They are hardworking, independent caretakers of land and animals—and jacks-of-all-trades. "My grandfather, who was a dairy farmer in the 1960s, was pretty pro-technology for that time period," said Olivia Platt, owner, of EsBern-OM Holsteins, of New Columbia, Pennsylvania. The farm is about 70 miles north of the state's capital, Harrisburg. "One of the first things he did after buying my family's home farm was to install a new milking pipline in our barn, which was relatively new technology then."  Technology has always been important to dairy farmers. But like any other industry, technology changes with time. "The fact that I’m milking with a robot really isn’t a stretch," Platt said. "It’s different, but it's just an example of how farmers have always embraced the newest technology."Improved experience for cowsPlatt's herd of 60 cows is milked by a LELY robot — and they seem to like it.But more than having contented cows, using the robot has other benefits: The robotic milking machine on Platt's farm is monitored by a computer, identifying each cow by its electronic collar. The computer tracks how much milk each cow has produced and how long since it was last milked. When there's a problem, Platt can access data about it via her smartphone. According to Platt, the cows are more content and comfortable than they used to be before milking was done by robotic machines. And she is also happy to have flexibility in her schedule and be able to do the same amount of work with fewer hands.Platt sees more detailed information provided by computers, machinery, and agronomy, all combining to increase productivity and reduce labor costs."Farmers have always accepted new advances in technology," she said. "Just like when horses were replaced by tractors, that was an advance in technology at the time. New technologies improve efficiency, reduce labor and make you more profitable. You can do a better job caring for cows and producing high qualtiy milk in less time." Platt explained how it works: The cow decides when she wants to be milked. She comes to the robot, and is fed a little bit of grain “that we call a treat,” she said. “What motivates the cow is nutrition. We have a lot more information about what a cow's nutritional requirements are today than we ever have in the past. It is something that has improved and will continue to improve and change.”Platt, whose herd's average daily production is about 85 pounds, said the cow in the robot is fed a grain ration based on her milk output and the herd's averages.All of that is what motivates her to come to the robot, Platt said. “A cow eats to meet her energy requirement. If she is making more milk, she has to eat more to make that milk. If she is making less milk, she eats less to make that amount of milk”Most well-managed dairies today have a nutritionist that they work with. The nutritionist comes in and balances the ration and makes sure the cows have what they need in front of them.LELY knows each cowThe robot knows the individual cow. The cow comes to the robot to finish up her ration, and that is what makes the system voluntary. “I don’t have to go get the cow and push the cow,” she said. "Because the robot is a positive experience for the cow, she voluntarily comes to be milked on her own." 

Every cow in the barn has a unique transponder on her collar. It will track how many steps a day she takes and how many times she chews her cud. Platt uses those two things as an indicator of whether a cow may be in heat and ready to breed. It will pinpoint cows that are actually sick before Platt might visibly be able to notice it in the barn.“I can go to the computer and the information is there,” she said. “That is the information on the transponder. It identifies her, has her ID number, so when she comes into the robot there is a scanner at the top of the robot that scans the transponder, and says, ‘Aha, this is cow No. 22’ and the computer kicks in.”For example, what if cow No. 22 is giving 75 pounds of milk? Platt needs to feed her six pounds of grain. “The robot will feed her according to her milk production for the day and it finds the teat coordinates in each quarter. It finds it with a red laser and it records seven days' worth of data on just the udder.As her udder changes in shape, the information that the robot has is also changing, so the connection time is fast enough to make it efficient. The cows' butterfat and protein can also be checked accurately using the robot.The robot tracks the milk's color and temperature, both of which can be an indicator of a sick cow or a cow with an udder infection. This information helps Platt better manage a cow's health. Platt can access all this with her smartphone. It all feeds back to the desktop computer in her office and she can get reports, like a body health report, which gives her a synopsis of any cow that may or may not be feeling well or off in production. If something is not quite right, she pops up on a list. All of this helps Platt in a lot of ways. She is a detail person so the information that comes back to her is important.“I look at the graphs, I look at the trends, I like to look back over the course of time and see … cows were doing this in January 2015, what were they doing in January 2014? And what has changed between now and then? I keep track of what we are feeding them year round so I can go back and compare.”The end result is more productivity and better quality milk. Platt gets about 15 pounds more milk per cow with this system.“But it’s not just the robot,” she emphasized. “There are differences between the barn we’re in now versus the old barn. Our barn now is designed for cow comfort and cow flow and behavior. In the old barn, you brought them in, you brought feed to them, you took the milker to them. And when you were done with them you chased them out and brought the next set in."Here, they do what they want to do, pretty much on their terms. It’s an increase in cow comfort and decrease in stress level for the cow."Improving grain and vegetable growth using hi-tech Elsewhere in Pennsylvania, farmers are using technology to streamline their grain farming practices, said Joshua Ritter, of Beavertown, Pennsylvania, who grows corn, soybeans, and alfalfa.Ritter has a robotic tractor that he can control using his smart phone. "But it's not like artificial intelligence," he said. "At least not yet. I position the tractor on a particular corn row and it will follow my instructions. I have heard that larger farms use more sophisticated equipment, but I can't afford that. I'm a small operation. I don't really need it either."Ritter said he also uses GPS and weather apps to determine when and where to water his crops. He also follows the latest charts and projections from the National Weather Service on his smartphone."But this does save me money," he said. "Labor is a problem, getting good help. It's not like technology on my farm is going to take away jobs. But it is going to help me be more efficient and at the same time spend time with my family."Dandes is a writer at The Sunbury, Penn. Daily Item.


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