Investing in robotics can help dairies adapt to a dwindling labor force.
By Annie Siebert, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
Milking a cow used to require only a bucket and a person unafraid of being kicked in the face.
Now, it takes a lot less manpower, but it requires lasers, computers, iPhone apps and computer chips embedded in cows' collars.
Kepple's Family Farm in Westmoreland County, Pa., has been using robotic milkers since 2011, when the family sold the rights to some of its 200 acres for Marcellus Shale gas well drilling, pouring the profits into the three milkers, which run about $120,000 a pop.
The Kepple family has owned the farm since 1886; it is now run largely by Jim Kepple, his wife Michelle and their son Mike, 21.
In addition to the dairy operation, the family also grows corn, soybeans, hay and alfalfa to feed the cows on the 200-acre farm and hundreds of acres of rented farmland nearby.
Despite the seemingly never-ending construction of strip malls and chain restaurants in places like North Huntingdon and Hempfield, farming remains the No. 1 industry in Westmoreland County.
Commissioner Ted Kopas said farming is "immensely important" to Pennsylvania and Westmoreland County.
"The challenge is, everyone likes to eat, but no one wants to farm," he said.
Fortunately, he said, family farms have adapted, using technology to replace some of the manpower. Westmoreland County is still dotted with livestock, dairy and crop farms.
"The fact that it remains so important shows the agriculture community has adapted to the changing times," Kopas said.
The Kepples' DeLaval robotic milking machine runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the computer keeps track of each cow's status — when it was last milked, when it's scheduled to be milked again and how much milk it's likely to produce. Each cow is milked two to four times a day and is identified by a transponder on its collar.
The transponders measure when the cows are next due to be milked to their activity level throughout the day. When there's a spike in activity level, that generally means the cow is in heat, and because cows have to give birth to calves to produce milk, knowing when they can become pregnant is important.
The first time a cow enters the milker, the computer learns where the cow's teats are located, so with each subsequent milking, the robot knows exactly where it's going so it can milk the cow quickly.
On a cool morning in mid-September, some of the Kepple family's 350 cows were queued up to enter the robotic milkers.
Cows serenely walked into the robotic milking chamber, where they were fed a molasses-laced feed.
"That's what their incentive is," Mike Kepple said.
Not that the cows seemed to mind the process. They stood quietly while the robot located their teats using lasers, then washed them with warm water and soap and swabbed them with iodine before attaching hoses to the cows' teats to begin milking.
While the cow is being milked, a screen on the milker shows the expected and total yields of milk from that cow. When the cow leaves the chamber, the screen reads, "waiting for cow."
The milk then goes into a tank in an adjacent building and is picked up daily to be processed and pasteurized by Colteryahn Dairy in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Carrick.
"The milk truck comes every day and picks it up," Mike Kepple said.
Jim Kepple said the farm produces about 1,400 gallons of milk a day. He said production went up about 10 percent after the robotic milkers were installed.
Everything in the system can be tweaked to suit the family's operation, Jim Kepple said, from how long the robot washes the cows' teats to how long it milks them.
If the cow requires medical treatment, he gets an alert on his phone when the cow enters the pen to be milked, Jim Kepple explained.
As if on cue, his cell phone rang and he flipped it open.
"That's the barn calling me now," he said.
Problems crop up with the robots occasionally, but mostly the machines run smoothly. Mike Kepple has an app on his iPhone that allows him to fix remotely problems with the robotic milkers. He was once in Ocean City, Md., with his girlfriend when a problem with the milkers arose. From the beach, he fixed the problem at the farm.
The family used to milk cows in a parlor, which required two people. Now, they can milk more cows with fewer people in fewer hours. Mike Kepple said two people used to work from 1:30 to 4 a.m.; now one person checks on the robotic milkers from 3:30 to 4:30 a.m.
"We saved a ton of man-hours there," he said.
Robots Can't Do Everything
When the family had the robotic milkers installed, they also put a "cow brush" in the barn.
"They say that they like it and they make more milk," Mike Kepple said as a cow leaned against the coarse-bristled yellow brush.
Besides the robotic milkers and brush, a V-shaped cable moves along the rubber floor of the barn and removes manure, "so we don't have to clean the barn, either," Mike Kepple said.
He said the rubber floor is softer on the cows' hooves — "They say it's like wearing shoes."
He said the biggest breakdown in the two years the family has had the robotic milkers happened when a rat chewed through an electrical wire.
And that's one of the things the Kepple family hasn't figured out how to outsource to robots — keeping birds, mice and rats at bay.
That task falls to the cats that live throughout the barn — kittens slept in a pile in the hay while adult cats walked along steel rafters high in the barn, and a plastic canister of chili powder, said to ward off rats, was tucked into a space between the robotic milkers.
Touring the Milkers
On that same day last month, a tour group of county extension agents from across the country stopped at Kepple's Family Farm. They were in town for the National Association of County Agricultural Agents meeting at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, Downtown.
"It's a professional development thing," said Gary Sheppard, the Penn State Cooperative Extension's district director for Armstrong, Indiana and Westmoreland counties.
During the conference, tours of farms throughout the region are arranged for the 2,800 conference attendees. The group's chartered tour bus arrived and promptly got stuck in one of the farm's driveways, and Mike Kepple fetched a chain and hooked it to a tractor to pull the bus out of the mud.
Phil Durst, who works with dairy producers in Michigan, marveled at the Kepples' robotic milkers and eagerly pointed out that the robots have an understanding of the anatomy of each cow and have no trouble milking even a "three-quarter cow" -- a cow with three teats instead of four.
"The point is," he said, "the machines can handle that."
Durst also noted the robots do more than just cut back on manpower.
"No matter how hard a cow kicks a robot, it doesn't swear," he said.