At O.A. Borden & Sons, most of the Holsteins can line up for milking any time they feel like it — and never be touched by a human hand.
The historic Washington County dairy farm, now run by the sixth and seventh generations of Bordens, has become the first in the Capital Region to completely automate a milking barn.
A Lely Astronaut robotic milking system went into operation in November in a new hilltop barn built expressly for it. With it, cows can set their own milking schedules, getting milked at 2 a.m. if the spirit moves them. No manual labor is required.
The system is cutting-edge enough to have piqued the interest of other farmers in the area who also worry about maintaining long barn hours and hiring the labor to cover those hours.
It was a big investment — more than $1 million, between the barn and two robotic milking stations — but essential to the farm’s future, according to the four family partners.
“It’s a big upfront investment, but there should be long-term savings,” said Mike Borden, 29, a Cornell University graduate who is the seventh generation to operate the farm a few miles north of Schaghticoke, started in 1837. “This is the right move for us.”
More farmers are looking at automated milking because of the cost of labor and questions about whether workers can even be found who are willing to put in the long and odd hours that farming necessitates.
Many large-scale operations now rely on Latin American workers, who bring with them the complications of immigration law and language barriers.
Robotic milking systems have been used in Europe for years. They are being adopted by farmers in other parts of the United States, though they are new to the Capital Region.
Lely is a Dutch company that built a factory in Iowa to meet growing U.S. demand. The Bordens said their system was made at the Iowa facility.
“I think labor costs are going to go up. It’s a question of labor availability, even at any cost,” said Tom Borden, 59, Mike’s father and also a Cornell graduate.
The Bordens milk about 200 cows, selling the milk to Stewart’s Shops’ Saratoga Springs dairy plant. They also have an 18-acre apple orchard, a farm store and a desire to milk more cows.
The farm now has the equivalent of 21⁄2 employees who are not family members, and wants to expand without taking on more workers.
“The goal is to milk more cows with the same labor force,” Tom Borden said.
Mike Borden saw robotic milking systems during a college trip to Europe in 2003 and began exploring automation seriously three or four years ago.
The new barn has two robotic milking stations, which cost more than $200,000 each. Between them, they have the capacity to handle about 120 cows. That means about 75 cows are still milked the conventional way in a different barn, but the family’s plan is to eventually have four robotic milkers and use them to milk about 240 cows.
No humans are present most of the time, though someone visits the barn two or three times a day. The cows can access the milking stations any time they want, though the robot will refuse them if they’ve been milked too recently.
When a cow ambles up to the station, a sensor reads a neck collar tag. That identifies the cow, allowing a computer to call up information on the cow’s milk production history and when she was last milked.
With that information, the robot dispenses grain, with high-producers getting more feed. A robotic arm positions itself under the udder, and with laser guidance small brushes rise to clean the cow’s teats, as a farmhand otherwise would.
Then the arm places suction cups called teat cups under the udder, and the cups rise and repeatedly adjust until they have attached to all four of the teats. A 3-D camera above the cow helps adjust the arm, too.
Each cow’s milk is held in a glass container inside the robot’s frame, weighed and tested, then pumped through stainless steel pipes into the farm’s 3,000-gallon bulk tank. Stewart’s makes a pickup every other day.
NOT ALWAYS EASY
The milking isn’t always a quick and easy process. While visitors watched one cold afternoon in December, a cow stomped and kicked at the robot’s arm before the machine maneuvered and repositioned and finally made a proper attachment to her udder.
“One thing about the robot is it’s very patient. It doesn’t get mad if it gets kicked. They’re very durable,” Mike Borden said.
Milking takes six or seven minutes for most cows. The computer separately tracks the production of each teat — a herd health consideration, since problems like mastitis typically manifest first in one quarter of the udder.
The robots can and do work entirely independently, though they are programmed to notify one of the Bordens via cellphone if something seems wrong — an individual cow not having come in for milking in too many hours, for example.
It also has the ability to automatically open and close gates and divert a cow that appears to have a problem into a pen separate from others, so it can be examined.
Most farms milk twice a day, though the largest commercial farms — those that milk more than 500 cows and have milking around-the-clock — try to milk each cow three times a day. Milking relieves pressure the cows feel as their udders fill with milk.
“The system works because the cows want to be milked and like it,” Tom Borden said.
The Bordens said the frequency with which cows come in has risen since the machines were installed. Still, the robot will reject a cow that comes in too soon after its last milking — looking for an extra portion of grain, perhaps.
The milking stations aren’t the only robots in the barn. There’s another that looks much more like a science fiction fan would expect. A short, rotund sweeping robot — think R2D2 with a skirt stretching to the floor — circles past the feeding stanchions in every area, beeping and pushing back feed silage the cows have nosed out of reach.
The robotic milking system is temperature-sensitive enough that radiant floor heat was installed in its enclosure. Artificial heat is rare in dairy barns, which can typically be heated by the animals’ bodies.
The Bordens also installed a backup generator system, so the robots will go on milking through a power outage.
It’s possible the future of local agricultural is on display in remote Washington County.
“There’s a lot of interest. We’ve had a lot of interest from other farmers,” Mike Borden said.
Reach Gazette reporter Stephen Williams at 885-6705 or firstname.lastname@example.org.