How Milk­ing Ro­bots Are Help­ing One Fam­ily’s 70-Year-Old Dairy Farm Thrive In 2017


Amanda Fre­und re­mem­bers the ex­act mo­ment when her un­cle, Ben Fre­und, raised the idea of bring­ing a ro­botic milk­ing sys­tem to the fam­ily’s dairy farm.

“It was Jan­uary, 2015, and we were in the of­fice, just there next to where those cows are,” she says, ges­tur­ing past the group of dry cows (the ones pre­par­ing to have their calves) that are graz­ing in one of the Fre­und barns. “And at the time, I was re­ally per­plexed. Like, how do we even be­gin to take on that kind of fi­nan­cial bur­den?”

Lo­cated in the north­west cor­ner of Con­necti­cut, in East Canaan, the Fre­und farm was es­tab­lished in 1949, when Amanda’s grand­par­ents, Eu­gene and Es­ther Fre­und, be­gan till­ing the land. To­day, the 200-acre farm is a thor­oughly modern—and sus­tain­able—op­er­a­tion, com­plete with more than 700 so­lar pan­els that meet the farm’s en­tire en­ergy needs and a meth­ane di­gester for con­vert­ing ma­nure into bio­gas that, in turn, heats the Fre­und’s house.

But the idea of in­stalling enough ro­botic milk­ing ma­chines to ser­vice the Fre­und’s 300 dairy cows was an entirely dif­fer­ent sort of mod­ern­iza­tion pro­ject. It would re­quire a brand new barn for hous­ing the new ma­chines and a hefty amount of cap­i­tal. The Lely Astro­naut A4, the model they were eye­ing, re­tails for around $250,000. One ro­bot can han­dle up to 60 cows, so the Fre­unds would need five.

It would be worth the cost, the fam­ily de­cided. At the time, they were spend­ing twelve hours a day on milk­ing alone (six hours at noon and six hours at mid­night), but with Amanda and her sib­lings com­ing into the age at which they could start think­ing about tak­ing over the farm’s own­er­ship and man­age­ment, they needed a way to free up their time so they could fo­cus on the as­pects of the busi­ness that best fit their skills and per­son­al­i­ties.

“The sys­tem is very ex­pen­sive, but the rea­son that we did it was look­ing ahead, and look­ing at the fact that my gen­er­a­tion, we don’t want to spend 12 hours a day stuck in a milk­ing par­lor. We want to be a lot more in­volved in the in­di­vid­u­al­ized cow care, and my brother would much rather be out in the fields do­ing crop­ping,” Amanda says. “And so, we de­cided that this is a re­ally im­por­tant as­pect to our suc­ces­sion plan.”

The Lely Astro­nauts (so named be­cause the only place the cow is con­nected to the ma­chine is on the udder, “like how an astro­naut is con­nected to a space­ship,” says Peter Lange­beeke, the pres­i­dent of Lely’s North Amer­ica busi­ness) were in­stalled in March 2016. Fif­teen months later, the Fre­unds are al­ready feel­ing the ben­e­fits of the de­ci­sion, if not a full re­turn on in­vest­ment just yet.

“We go to our dairy co­op­er­a­tive meet­ings and there are farm­ers that brag that they haven’t missed a milk­ing in four decades. I don’t want that brag­ging right,” Amanda says, not­ing that if there’s an in­dus­try event that re­quires a fam­ily rep­re­sen­ta­tive or two, need­ing to be on the farm for a mid­day milk­ing changes ev­ery­thing.

“Like the other day, I was at the cap­i­tal, Amanda and my fa­ther were in Alaska, my Un­cle Ben was deal­ing with some­thing in New York, and ba­si­cally [our younger sis­ter] Rachel was on the farm by her­self,” Amanda’s younger brother Isaac, ex­plains. Pre-ro­bots, that work­load would have been un­man­age­able for the younger Fre­und sis­ter.

The Lely sys­tem works by sup­ply­ing each cow with a dig­i­tal col­lar—think a bovine Fit­bit—that mon­i­tors her ac­tiv­ity, her chew­ing and her ru­mi­na­tion (ba­si­cally, her re­gur­gi­ta­tion and sec­ond chew­ing of the food). The cows have been trained to go to an Astro­naut when she feels like she needs to re­lease milk (in ad­di­tion to feel­ing a sen­sa­tion sim­i­lar to what a lac­tat­ing woman may feel right be­fore she nurses her child or pumps milk, the ro­bots emit a spe­cial kind of feed that the cows are ea­ger to con­sume), and when she does this, the

ro­bot gets the in­for­ma­tion from the col­lar to know ex­actly which cow it is deal­ing with. If, for ex­am­ple, it is one that pro­duces 90 pounds of milk a day, the Astro­naut knows to ap­por­tion her with more feed than what it might give a cow that pro­duces 60 pounds a day. The Astro­naut will ap­por­tion the feed at a rate that keeps the cow at the ma­chine for the du­ra­tion of the milk­ing; when each quar­ter of the udder has been milked to its ca­pac­ity, the Astro­naut will re­lease the cow’s teats and she is free to roam back to her bunk.

The sys­tem runs 24/7, which means that each cow can go to the ro­bot when­ever she wants, and not just at noon and mid­night. It also means that if a cow is pro­duc­ing enough milk to get milked three times a day, that can now hap­pen— and with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion. Go­ing from two milk­ings a day to three can, in turn, can boost a cow’s milk out­put by 15%. But Amanda and Lely ex­ec­u­tives say the “with­out hu­man in­ter­ven­tion” part of the equa­tion is just as im­por­tant as in­creased dairy out­put.

“This all started with try­ing to get more free­dom for our cows,” Lely’s Lange­beeke said. “If a cow is not re­laxed and is stressed, she doesn’t let the milk go.”

Thanks to the new sys­tem—which in­cludes an on­line dash­board that cu­rates all of the data be­ing col­lected by the dig­i­tal col­lars and the Astro­nauts—Amanda and her fam­ily know more about each cow than ever be­fore. They can set up alerts so that they’re no­ti­fied when a cow ap­pears to be “in heat” (at an op­ti­mal mo­ment to re­ceive bull se­men); they can track when a cow’s ac­tiv­ity drops and in­ter­vene with flu­ids or a bovine ver­sion of Ga­torade be­fore medicine be­comes nec­es­sary; and they can, of course, see ex­actly how much milk their herd is pro­duc­ing (the me­ter read a pre­cise 22,684 pounds for the prior 24 hours one re­cent morn­ing).

It’s the kind of tech­nol­ogy that Eu­gene and Es­ther Fre­und couldn’t have ever imag­ined when they started the farm in 1949. But they also prob­a­bly would have been hard pressed to en­vi­sion that Con­necti­cut’s then-6,200 dairy farms would be whit­tled down to 118 by the time their grand­chil­dren were old enough to take over farm man­age­ment. For­tu­nately for their le­gacy, Amanda and her sib­lings seem de­ter­mined to not let the Fre­und Farm be ca­su­alty num­ber 6,003.

“It’s not an in­dus­try you’re in be­cause you’re mak­ing a lot of money, and it never will be. And it’s prob­a­bly not the right busi­ness to be in if that’s what you wanted,” Amanda says. “But I’m here be­cause I’m till­ing and har­vest­ing off of the same land that my grandpa was grow­ing crops on 70 years ago. And I think that’s the coolest thing, and if we can get to a point where we actually cel­e­brate 100 years of farm­ing here, that would be awe­some.”

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