Tended by robots, milk cows mooove into life of luxury

Robots move from factories, warehouses into barns

DEARING - For the Holstein dairy cows at Hillcrest Farms, life is like living in a spa, thanks to the robotics installed less than a year ago.

The black-and-white beauties wander at will under automatic rolling brushes for a quick grooming massage. At a different station, farmer Mark Rodgers plays pedicurist, using straps and a lift to elevate the 1,300-pound females for a quick hoof trim and leg massage. His wife suggested the leg massage.

“Marci said that was an important part of the pedicure experience,” said Rodgers.

The 325 Holsteins lounge on beds of cleaned and sanitized sand in the barn for about 70% of their day, and they walk on $100,000 worth of new rubber matting while lining up to let themselves into the five automated milking stalls.

Welcome, to the future of “Got Milk?” and the rest of farming.

Milking robots made by DeLaval replaced the human operated milking parlor at Hillcrest Farms in Dearing, Ga., a fourth-generation American family dairy farm owned and operated by Mark Rodgers and his family since 1941. Hillcrest Farms is Georgia's first robotic dairy, but others are being added as technology changes agriculture. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



Agriculture is still Georgia’s largest industry with an estimated $75 billion impact on the state’s trillion-dollar economy. And though it still carries a dirt-under-the-fingernails stereotype, those fingers are becoming as used to swiping screens full of data as they are cleaning out a jammed cotton picker.

From autonomous tractors to field-pest analysis provided by drone and in-ground sensors providing moisture content, farming in Georgia is moving well into the 21st century. Technology is critical to keeping folks fed as fewer farmers provide more food and agriculture — often a tough business to turn a profit in — looks for efficiency. Lt. Gov. Geoff Duncan included high-tech farming as a key element of his economic plan to make Atlanta and Georgia the Silicon Valley of the East.

The Rodgers family knows that as well any. Georgia has lost 40% of its dairy farms in the last decade, according to the Georgia Milk Producers, which points to low milk prices, competition from other drinks — and the challenge of finding workers who can milk cows two or three times a day, every day.

Rodgers and his brother, Andy, could have avoided the debt of adding robots to the farm, which is near Augusta, as they near their 60s, and eased into the life of raising beef rather than milking. But Mark’s daughter Caitlin, 30, and Andy’s son Joshua, 27, wanted to come home and take over the 850 acres.

“It’s still a family farm. That’s the beauty of the whole thing,” Mark Rodgers said.

The robots, the family hopes, will help a fourth generation to hang on and, hopefully, thrive.

Their Holsteins let themselves into the milking stalls about twice a day. Cows love routines, Rodgers says. And dairy cows get an urge to be relieved of the liquid pressure when their udders are full. On top of that, the stainless steel robotic milkers throw in a treat — sweet, high-starch feed — when the cows enter the milking chute.

“It’s kind of like giving a kid candy. They love it,” Rodgers said.

Each individual cow can be monitored daily for any changes using artificial intelligence and robotic technology at  Hillcrest Farms in Dearing, Ga. Technology is quickly changing how Georgia farmers operate and helping them stay competitive. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



It was a matter of training and repetition — taking a cow of average intelligence and good temper about three days to figure out and a few months to perfect.

But it was a little nerve-wracking when the occasional jumpy trainee gave a startled kick while being touched by one of the five expensive robotic milkers.

The technology at Hillcrest is the first in Georgia. At least four other dairies in the state are making the move to robotics. It’s more common in Europe, where the technology was perfected.

The local pioneer is attracting attention. Lots of people come for tours, including other farmers. The bejeaned Rodgers says he also gets questions via internet from farmers as far away as New Zealand and Pakistan.

DeLaval of Sweden, the manufacturer of the robotic milkers, promises on its website to make farms more profitable.

Rodgers said DeLaval doesn’t want him to say how much the robots cost. “But it’s like buying Porsches and dropping them into a barn.”

Luckily Hillcrest Farms can afford the investment. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, the former Georgia governor, has told farmers that small farms will have to bulk up if they want to survive.

Josh, Andy Rodgers’ son, got a degree in industrial maintenance and was the one who suggested the family take a look at adding robots to the 79-year-old operation. He maintains the machines and said the start was something of a trial by fire.

Mark Rodgers talked daughter Caitlin into trying something other than farming when she went to college.

“Dad told me not to come back. That it was going to be a hard life,” she said.

She started in nursing but soon gave it up and followed her heart to an agricultural degree. She manages the herd.

“Labor costs is driving this,” Mark Rodgers said of the robotics. He can’t compete for workers with some of the local manufacturers’ hourly wages.

Rodgers has reduced staff from about 10 to six. There’s still plenty of work to do: feeding, cleaning, caring for the herd, birthing calves, growing corn and other fodder for feed. The robotics lets them focus on the cows rather than the daily churn of milkings.

The DeLaval robotic arm detaches from a cow's udder at Georgia's first robotic dairy, Hillcrest Farms in Dearing Georgia. The family farm invested in five robotic milkers to stay efficient in the hyper-competitive dairy business. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



As Rodgers talked in front of one robotic milker, a steady stream of Holsteins let themselves into the chute. They can do that 24/7. After moveable gates backed the cows into perfect position, a low-slung silver arm holding the milking cups and a spray-and-wash unit for the udders carefully moved into place beneath the cow, guided by a camera and artificial intelligence that can recognize teats and seat the milking cups.

An iPad-sized screen lights up with information about the cow and, ounce by ounce, production in real time.

The machine already knows more about the cow than Rodgers could ever memorize, down to how much milk each teat has given in the last 10 months and how much the cow moved in the last 24 hours, thanks to a bovine equivalent of a Fitbit around its neck. He has more data stacked up on the farm’s cows than he knows what to do with, all accessible on a computer screen or iPhone.

The decision to make the investment was about making things more efficient, making a profit “and making the cows happy,” Rodgers said.

He thinks they like the process better than human-controlled milking.

Mark Rodgers shows how each of the farms hundreds of cows are individually monitored 24 hours a day. Artificial intelligence can tip the Rodgers family off to health, from sickness to when a cow is ready to breed. (Hyosub Shin / Hyosub.Shin@ajc.com)



“You want to be leave them alone and let cows be cows. That is the beauty of the system, we are not forcing them to do anything,” he said.

A relaxed cow is a good milker. An average Holstein gives about 11 gallons a day. His best girl gives about 24. Production is down a little this year as the cows continue to get used to the process.

Rodgers thinks that will go back up over time as the cows settle in and he culls those now carefully monitored Holsteins and keeps the ones that do well. Those that don’t are still marketable as meat.

He’ll be happy to ease into the life of a gentleman farmer and watch the robots and the children take more of the responsibility.

“I’ll never see the benefit of all this,” he said of the investment. “But they will.”

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