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.”