Fair Oaks Farms: Letting Machines Do the Milking

Fair Oaks Farms Robotics 112619

Even though Congress is in recess, producers continue to look at Washington to see if any farm labor or immigration laws will be passed. It’s in an effort to find a qualified and legal workforce. One of the most well-known dairies in the United States, Fair Oaks Farms in Northern Indiana, is moving towards robots for the very reason.

Fair Oaks Farms is one of the largest dairies in the U.S. It is also an agri-tourism location. As the dairy strives to make improvements, it is also implementing changes.

“If you’re doing the same thing every day [and it’s] the right way to do it, then you have a very healthy and productive cow,” said Fair Oaks Farms co-owner and founder, Mike McCloskey.

The team at Fair Oaks gave us a sneak peek at the robotic dairy addition to their operation. It will soon be revealed to the public. The building has attractions for the family and designed by an engineer who used to work for Disney. Fair Oaks is using DeLaval robots to milk cows in some of its parlors.

“It’s an excellent vision technology [and] excellent milk analysis equipment,” said Joakim Rosengren, the CEO of DeLaval.

There’s more than just the awe and wonder of robotics.

“In this country, we do have a serious labor situation. We need to look for ways to be more efficient with our labor,” said McCloskey. McCloskey knows firsthand the struggle of finding good, quality labor. It’s a problem the agricultural industry faces as a whole.

Back in June, an animal activist group revealed alleged animal abuse undercover videos from the dairy. The investigation resulted in three employees being charged with animal cruelty.

Robotics could help decrease the labor needs on his dairy as a way to combat the problem of finding employees, especially since dairies can’t use the H-2A program. McCloskey isn't the only farmer facing this challenge. The U.S. Department of Labor says the unemployment rate in the U.S. was 3.6% in October. It was 10% in October of 2009.

“What farmers and ranchers will tell you is that finding labor has been increasingly difficult for several decades,” said Veronica Nigh an economist with the American Farm Bureau Federation. “Even during the economic downturn, farmers were having trouble sourcing labor.”

This all continues as the agricultural industry looks to Washington for answers in legislation for their workforce, especially since a large percent is not U.S. born.

“On the livestock side of life, which includes the dairy, 60% of those workers are foreign born,” said Nigh. Robots are a significant investment.

“Some say [robots could be a] savings up to 29%,” Nigh said. “The ability to make that capital improvement certainly varies from farm to farm. A single robotic milker is $150,000 to $200,000 and milks 50 to 70 cows.”

DeLaval says some of its largest customers are in other countries.

“The largest installation we have is actually in Chile,” said Rosengren. “We have them in Japan, China and Russia [as well].”

“This is a big, big change for us to go from conventional dairy farming on great rotaries which work extremely well, to take another step forward in automation,” said McCloskey.

It may be a step towards the future of farming. Perhaps, it’s a way to solve more than one problem.