The Cow-Milking Robots Keeping Small Farms in Business

Around the country, dairy farms are struggling to stay open, embracing technology may be one way to make them more efficient.

cows at tullando farms in vermont
Nate Tullar, a 38-year-old dairy farmer in Orford, N.H., opens an isolation gate so cows can freely enter the stall within the Lely Astronaut, a robotic milking machine. (Greta Rybus)

Ever since Nate Tullar was a toddler, when adults asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he knew what to tell them. In the ’50s, Tullar’s grandparents, George and Barbara, had bought Tullando Farm, a dairy farm located along the Connecticut River in Orford, a town in northwest New Hampshire, and started out milking a dozen cows; his parents, Rendell and Karen, had taken up the business after them. Tullar grew up milking and feeding cows, and showing them at fairs. He knew he would be a dairy farmer, too.

These days, this kind of career conviction is one—perhaps the only—logical reason for a young person to become a dairy farmer, especially at the small-scale dairy operations of the Northeast and Midwest. The high cost of barns, farm equipment, and cows, plus volatile prices for milk and feed, reward larger operations that can spread production costs over more animals. In 1987, 202,068 farms produced about 144 billion pounds of milk, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; by 2017, just 40,219 farms made 215 billion pounds of milk. While dairy farms had a median of 80 or fewer cows in 1987, that figure increased to 900 cows more than a quarter-century later. Nowadays, dairies in the West and Southwest can have 15,000 or 20,000 milking cows, Dave Swartz, an assistant director of programs for animal systems with Penn State Extension, told me.

Tullando Farm is among the smaller-scale farms that stayed in business. I visited Tullar, who is 38, on a grey summer day. He greeted me in a Red Sox shirt, Carhartt pants, steel-toed boots, and a red hat, in the Tullando Farm office. Inside hung a yellow and blue banner, stamped with the Tullars’ name, 1956 establishment date, and their enduring motto: “In Cows We Trust.”

While Tullar was growing up, he watched his parents and grandparents expand their herd size, build new barns, and embrace the latest technologies. In 2000, Tullar graduated from the University of New Hampshire’s dairy-management program to begin working full-time at the farm. The dairy’s schedule included six- or seven-hour sessions milking over 400 cows, three times a day. Tullar was on the morning shift—“from four to ten,” he said.

Tullar gradually began helping his parents manage the dairy while his younger sister, Emily Gray, kept track of finances. Tullando Farm has a long history of taking progressive steps to stay in the dairy business, which is why, in addition to adopting best practices for soil health, cattle genetics, and animal comfort, the Tullars decided to computerize as much as their operation as possible. In 2012, they built an enormous new free-stall barn with thermostat-controlled fans and curtains, automated manure-scrapers, and spinning, bristly yellow brushes that cows rub up against when they need a scratch.

Nate Tullar checks on a milking robot in the high-tech milking parlor his family has used at Tullando Farm since 2014. (Greta Rybus)

In 2014, the Tullar family completed the last, and perhaps most dramatic, step in their long-term improvement plan: They bought eight cow-milking robots called Astronauts, invented by the Dutch company Lely in 1992. For three, 24-hour days after the robots’ arrival, Lely employees helped Tullando Farm herd every one of their 480 cows into and out of the new milking machines, three times each day, to get the animals acquainted. At three months, everything was working the way it was supposed to. These days, a number of European and North American manufacturers sell robotic milkers, which are used by an estimated 4.5 percent of dairy operations in the United States (including Tullando Farm), Joao Costa, an assistant professor at the University of Kentucky who researches dairy-precision technology, told me.

Over the four years since then, changes in the global economy and a glut in the domestic market have placed extra pressure on those, like the Tullars, who have weathered the industry’s longer-term restructuring. Historically, strong prices lead to increased milk production one year, oversupply lowers the price the next two years, then prices rebound. But three years ago, Europe eliminated a quota system that had limited the amount of fluid milk farmers could produce. That action, combined with Russia’s 2014 embargo on European Union products, decimated demand abroad for U.S. dairy products—and it came as people in the U.S. were drinking less milk. All this interrupted the normal three-year cycle for federal milk prices. Other recent events, such as President Trump’s trade war and Canada’s, China’s, and Mexico’s retaliatory tariffs on U.S. dairy, haven’t improved matters. Last week, however, the Trump administration agreed to sign the new United States-Mexico-Canada Trade Agreement, which is expected to open up more Canadian dairy market access for U.S. farmers by 2020.

Milk pours into a holding container inside the Lely Astronaut. (Greta Rybus)

U.S. dairy cooperatives—businesses owned and operated by member dairy farmers to market their milk—have had to close membership to new farmers and in some cases, even dump surplus milk. “We’ve never really had an extended four-year cycle where there weren’t things we could do in the U.S.,” Bob Wellington, an agricultural economist and a vice president at the northeast dairy cooperative Agri-Mark, said.

Increasingly, many farms can’t offer job security for young people like Tullar. “The problem is they don’t have the income to support the kids coming back on the farm,” Wellington said. He added that some Agri-Mark farmers earn an income low enough to make them eligible for food stamps. After a member farmer committed suicide this past winter, Wellington included a list of mental health and suicide prevention resources in Agri-Mark’s February membership letter.

Despite the fraught economics (and emotions), there remain young farmers who are willing to take the risk. Some work second jobs off the farm. Others diversify with value-added products like meat, maple, or yogurt, or they invest in their own bottling plant to direct-market milk in the old-timey glass jugs that speak directly to a certain kind of consumer’s buy-local, know-your-food, support-your-farmer tendencies.

Nate Tullar continues his family legacy. On my tour of Tullando Farm, we passed a giant red cow statue that stood just outside the farm office—a gift from Lely. Just inside the barn and across the aisle from some chewing cows, I spotted a stationary red-and-gray machine that looked like R2-D2; Tullar told me it was an out-of-commission pusher that, when working, keeps feed within reach of cows’ mouths. As for the Astronauts, Tullar led me to the center of the barn and into the long, narrow milking parlor so I could see them in action. While the machinery’s pumping power and chemical supplies lived on the floor above, the eight red, refrigerator-like housings for the milk lined either side of the first-floor aisle.

Next to each Astronaut case, a horizontal gap in the wall offered a window into the automated milking process. A cow walked into the stall-like enclosure and stuffed her face in some grain while the rear gate closed behind her. Next, the robotic arm swung beneath her belly and cleaned her udder with spinning brushes and peroxide disinfectant. Red lasers located her four teats before cups suctioned onto each one. She continued eating as the robot pumped the milk. Eventually, one by one, the teat cups dropped off and the cow received an iodine spray. The stall’s front gate then opened and the cow went on her way.

Nate Tullar walks through his grandparents' old pasture. (Greta Rybus)

“Before we put in the robots, we didn’t have enough help,” Tullar said. While the Lely Astronauts required a “substantial investment”—between $150,000 and $200,000 for each robot, not including barn costs—Tullar said they make up for four full-time employees. Using an app on his phone, which tracks the black transponders that hang from each cow’s neck like a bell, Tullar knows what’s going on with his animals at all times: when they’re sick, in heat, or moving around too much for the robot teat cups to get a good grip. And now, instead of herding them and hooking up the milking machines by hand, he has the time to walk among and observe his free-roaming cows, who like to come up and ask for a pat.

“We need to be more efficient as an industry, and that is a really good way to do so,” Costa told me. Dairies have struggled to retain employees, as farms often can’t match wages at warehouses or fast-food chains, and robots help solve that problem. In the future, Costa expects technology to not only perform the manual jobs and take down data for farmers, but to integrate all that information and make management decisions easier and faster. “We’re going to depend less on human labor,” he said.

Amid all this change, Tullar is trying to hang on to some semblance of what his grandparents started. What keeps him from despairing about the equipment repairs going undone, robots still to be paid off, and the stubbornly low milk prices, he said, is pretty simple: the tractor, the fields, the cows. Just before the rain came that August afternoon, I followed Tullar past an unlatched barbed wire fence, through tall grass and wildflowers and into one of his grandparents’ old pastures bordering the river and cornfields. He called out, “C’mon girls!” at the 20 dry cows grazing along the tree line and waited for them to trot over. Gathered in a loose semi-circle, Tullar’s herd pressed their wet noses to his arms, his legs, his face. “They just wish I had grain,” he said, but I wasn’t so sure that was true. I didn’t see them nuzzle the robots like that.