California Farmers Transition From Flat Barn to Robots
At first glance, Fred and Ethel seem like the perfect employees, even without Ricky and Lucy. They show up on time every day, comply with SOPs and milk the cows the same way every time. And they’ve never shown up to work drunk, which is a bonus. The Jones family installed Fred and Ethel, a pair of DeLaval VMS robots, in the last quarter of 2017 and they haven’t looked back. Jones Family Farm in Stevinson, Calif., started as a turkey farm in the 1950s. In fact, most of the existing cow barns were at one time turkey barns. Now, the family milks 850 cows on their farm, 750 through a flat barn and 100 with Fred and Ethel. Over the next three to five years, they hope to be milking all the cows with robots.
As facilities continued to age, the family knew it was time to start thinking about replacing barns. “The barns were built in the early ’70s. They’re tired and they don’t owe us a whole lot more,” says third generation dairy farmer David Jones. Once they decided it was time to build a new facility, Jones and his dad, Rick, started putting in the work to determine their next step. They read everything they could get their hands on about new parlors and traveled to dozens of farms looking at rotaries and parallel barns. “We had plans ready to go to the county for a double-30 parallel,” the elder Jones explains. “Then we had six men walk off the job, all on the same day.” A misunderstanding surrounding overtime pay started the Joneses down the path of investigating whether or not robots could ever work for their farm.
“We just could not get excited about any of the conventional options, so we just sat on our hands for a while,” the youngerJones says. “When we initially started talking about robots, I said the same thing others are saying: ‘Robots can’t work in the West.’”
According to Lely, one of three companies that manufacture milking robots, there are 2,000 robotic milking machines installed in the U.S. The majority of the robots are in the Midwest and Northeast, although they are gaining popularity in states such as California and Washington. The father-son team started thinking about robots in the context of how they could work on their farm. They went on more farm tours, this time to see milking robots in action before they settled on the DeLaval brand. Kim Clark, dairy Extension educator at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, says younger farmers, usually 40 and under, are leading the charge on installing robots. “They want to continue dairying within their family, and they know to make it work for their family and for their management style, robots are looking better and better every day,” she says. “And probably the biggest reason we are seeing the younger producers put in the robots is that their passion is really managing the cows, not managing people. And so with the robotic system, you can take the employees out of the equation—not all of them, you still need a fair number —but you can spend even more time managing the cows.”
While the decision to put in robots was entirely a joint decision between David and Rick, employee management and cow comfort were significant factors in their decision to start the transition.
From a Sketch and Spreadsheet to Reality “Once we decided this is the way we want to go, the real work began,” the younger Jones says. First, they’d have to get their banker on board. While their banker was hesitant at first, now he’s “all in,” the elder Jones says. “When you start thinking about the cost of running this dairy as is for five years, the robots start to make sense,” the younger Jones explains. Proposed costs were separated into two pots of money: equipment and construction costs for the milking robots, and the cost of building a new freestall barn. “The freestall barn has to happen if we want to continue to dairy here,” the younger Jones says. Then, when you factor in the cost of employees for the next five years, robots “really start to make sense,” he says. Labor costs have started to skyrocket in the Golden State. A $15 minimum wage and a new law that requires farmers to pay overtime for anything beyond an eight-hour workday is crippling. Once they figured out the financing, the next hurdle became getting their milk inspectors on board. A previous bad experience with robots in their community left a bad taste in the mouths of inspectors and companies alike.
“We had to do a lot of things here that you wouldn’t necessarily have to do in other states to get the robots in,” the younger Jones says. “There was a little bit of head butting at the start, but now that they are in, we’re on very good terms with them.” The next challenge came in getting the cows ready for the robot barn. The Joneses followed the textbook example of breaking cows into a robotic facility. The cows spent weeks in their new pen, able to go into the robot stall for grain. Once they were used to that, they would go in for grain and have their teats sprayed with post dip.
“That gets them used to something coming underneath them when they are in there eating,” the elder Jones explains. “The robot stall has got to be a happy place for them. Everything was baby steps.” When it came time for launch day, almost all of the cows came in to be milked on their own.
Life With Robots While their milk production per cow has dipped slightly since break in day (down from 102 lb. per day to 98 lb. per day due in part to lactation curve), both Joneses say they are amazed how relaxed the cows are. “The cows are so calm now,” the younger Jones says. “We’re not locking up cows here anymore, the breeder just walks through and arms them in the stall. Everybody on the farm is more relaxed.” The elder Jones says the reduced stress and improved longevity for the cows is what got him excited about the robots in the first place.
“What sold me is that on every robot farm we went to, the cows are lasting a lactation and a half longer,” he says. “That nailed it down for me.” For the younger Jones, the labor savings and cow comfort are enticing, but the additional business opportunities that come with the robots sealed the deal for him.
“I think it’s great on the cows but when you start seeing the business advantages too, that’s when it gets really exciting,” he says. “When you’re getting a lactation and a half more per animal now you’ve got opportunities to sell heifers or cull heavier. If there’s less stress on the animals you’re seeing better reproductive efficiencies. Those are all things that make sense from a business perspective and from an animal welfare standpoint, well, this is it.”
At the end of the day, a robot is just a tool. The Joneses are quick to add that robots aren’t going to be profitable or even the right fit for every farm.
“At the end of the day this is just a piece of equipment. It milks cows, that’s what it does,” the younger Jones says. “It is cost prohibitive for a lot of farms.” The elder Jones says while you’re not tied to a parlor 16 hours per day, there’s no down time. “Not everybody would like this because there’s no start or stop times. It never stops,” he says. “You don’t finish milking the cows, turn off the lights and go home, because anything can happen, at any time of the day.” Just like any other machine, the robots do have equipment breakdowns and issues from time to time. “The difference is, they don’t lie to you about how it broke,” the elder Jones jokes.
Robots aren’t even a silver bullet for reducing staff numbers. The younger Jones says when they are done with the full conversion, it will allow them to reduce their staff to five employees. “It’s not that it’s going to get rid of all of our employees entirely, and that’s not my goal,” he explains. “But I’m interested in training a higher caliber of employee and creating a better quality of life for everyone on our team.”
The Next Phase The barn Ethel and Fred are in is going to serve as a training facility once the next phase is complete. The cows will then be sorted off to other robot barns. “The way we plan on doing our next phase is to have one central equipment room and tank room, and then several small robot pods,” the younger Jones explains. Completing the next phase is not going to be a fast process, the elder Jones adds. “I’d like to say it will be done in three years,” he says. “We have plans for the freestall barn with the engineer. Once we take them to the county they could be there six months. So, if by November we’re actually building, that would be great. Adding the robots will be an additional 18-month deal.”
Together, the father and son team of David and Rick Jones are investing in the future of their farm. “This was a decision we really came to together, and I’m glad we did,” the elder Jones says. “It has made dairying fun again.”