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Robotic dairy survives on economy of scale

On a dairy farm in rural Eyota, Minn., a day-old calf wobbles up to a robotic feeding stall. An RFID reader scans the tag clipped to the calf’s ear and measures the amount of milk allotted to the baby as she drinks from the feeder.

In just a generation or two, farmers have embraced high-tech advances in their fields and barns.

But those advances led to a sharp increase in production in the midst of a trade war with two of the U.S.’s largest dairy export markets. That has left many American farms awash with excess product and no one to sell it to. However, the economy of scale has kept some larger dairy producers afloat.

“There’s been a crazy amount of technology added to farming,” said Dana Allen-Tully, a manager and operator of the multigenerational Gar-Lin Dairy Farms. “We can access our cow files on our phone, I can look up a specific cow on my phone, or I can see what the feeders are doing on my phone.”

The automatic feeders allow calves to have multiple, smaller meals throughout the day to mirror the feeding schedule they would have if they were out in the pasture with their moms.

Each calf is fitted with an ear tag shortly after it’s born that has an identification code, similar to a Social Security number, that can be scanned by the automatic feeder when the baby approaches the milk distribution stall.

Information associated with that code, such as how much a calf should eat and when it should eat, is transmitted to the feeder and governs the flow of milk through the dispenser.

Data from robotic feeders are fed back to a handheld device, where supervisors can monitor how much the calves drink and how fast.

“Calf feeding is by far one of the hardest jobs on the farm because it’s so physical. You’re dealing with a calf that weighs 100 pounds and you’ve got to lift it and work with it, so this was built to improve the environment for the employees too,” Allen-Tully said.

Gar-Lin is an efficient operation. It pasteurizes waste milk to feed to calves, instead of dumping the milk and purchasing milk replacement, and roughly half a mile away Gar-Lin employees harvest hay to feed their herd.

They grow their own to reduce the cost of feed, and they use manure from their cows to fertilize their fields.

Of the 4,500 acres they farm, 3,100 of that goes to feed the animals.

They’ve become partially independent of external suppliers to keep their cost down and to keep in line with federal EPA regulations that apply to dairy farms of 700 head or more. They have an on-site nutritionist who analyzes the feed and balances rations to optimize milk production as well as cow health and performance.

“Our cows eat a way better diet than I do,” Allen-Tully said, laughing.

Gar-Lin Dairy was purchased by Allen-Tully’s parents from her grandparents in the mid-1970s. At that time, they were milking about 40 cows.

Dana’s parents decided to expand the dairy and by the time Dana graduated from high school, they were milking 300 cows. When Dana returned to the farm after college, her parents had doubled their herd to 600 cows.

In 2006 the herd expanded to 1,100, and from there it’s grown to the current size of 2,000 cows and 45 employees. Allen-Tully attributed the growth as necessary to make a profit in an industry with stagnant milk prices but inflation in equipment and supply costs.

“Consolidation in the dairy industry is happening way faster than I expected it to,” she said. “I don’t think we’ll be considered a ‘big farm’ for very long, I think we’ll be average.”

She noted that the cost structure of products in the market, such as deeper discounts on supplies for producers who buy in larger bulk orders, is driving smaller farmers out of business and prompting mid-size farms to expand to survive.

“I can buy a gallon of teat dip so much cheaper than someone who uses only a gallon, because I buy 275 gallons at a time and they’re going to buy 15,” she said. “I think it’s sad.”

Gar-Lin fills three 6,000-gallon tanks to be shipped per day to manufacturing and distribution facilities.

The dairy’s semi-robotic carousel in the parlor can milk up to 50 cows at a time and 270 cows in an hour. The machine monitors and records the amount of milk each animal produces, as each cow walks on and off the carousel on their own.

They send their milk to Land O’Lakes, which sells dairy products internationally through partnerships with major food manufacturers across the globe.

“I think trade has affected us, but the issues that they’re trying to fix should have been fixed a long time ago,” Dana said.

She hopes Congress will pass the trade agreement with Mexico and Canada and noted that Mexico received more dairy products from the United States than any other trading partner before the trade war.


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