Courtesy of Kelly Mahaffy

A cow in a robotic milker eats grain and gets milked anytime its ready. Robots milk about 3% of the U.S. dairy herd, according to a University of Wisconsin-Madison study. Industry experts expect that to grow, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

COOS BAY — River Bend Jerseys, an organic dairy farm with 150 cows in Coos County, just welcomed two new workers to the farm — a pair of milking robots.

In August, Pete Mahaffy, third-generation dairy farmer and member of the Organic Valley cooperative, installed robots that automatically release grain, use electronic mapping to locate a cow’s teats, clean the udder and teats, then milk the cow with suction-cup-like devices. Each robot can handle about 60 cows per day.

Despite his leap into robotics, Mahaffy said he doesn’t consider himself a pioneer.

“I’m not a guy that’s interested in being the first one out of the gate,” he said.

Mahaffy installed the robots because he saw how successful they were on other farms.

Robotic milkers have been popular in Europe since the 1990s and are integral to Canada’s dairy industry.

In the U.S., milking robots still are rare. According to research from the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, in 2011, the U.S. had about 500 dairy farms using robotic milkers. By 2018, robots were milking 2% of the national dairy herd.

In 2020, it’s closer to 3%, according to the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Industry experts say they expect growth, especially in the Pacific Northwest.

Farmers say they are choosing robots because the machines give them more time, lower cows’ stress levels, provide data on animal health and save on labor costs.

In Washington state, dairy farmers told the Capital Press that labor expenses are fresh on their minds after the Washington Supreme Court ruled Nov. 5 farmworkers are entitled to overtime pay.

Maynard Mallonee, a third-generation Organic Valley dairy farmer who uses robotics in Curtis, Washington, said he knows at least five farmers who responded to the Supreme Court decision by inquiring about robot costs from manufacturers.

The price of a new robotic milker ranges from $175,000 to $250,000. Installation can cost $150,000 or more per robot. But farmers say robots save long-term on labor.

Mahaffy said the robots have given him time to focus on other tasks, such as pasture management.

Shane Styger, an Organic Valley dairy farmer in Chehalis, Washington, said because he has robots, he’ll be able to run his 100 cows alone this week while his parents, who co-run the dairy, are away.

Mallonee said before getting robots, he missed out on many of his children’s activities because of his milking schedule. The robots, he said, are “more family-oriented.”

Farmers also say robots are better for cow health and happiness.

The robots also milk cows for data. Most robots include software that reads radio frequencies from a sensor a cow wears on its ear or collar. Data include a cow’s milk production level, somatic cell count and how often the cow ruminates.

Cows can approach the robots whenever they are hungry for grain and feel ready to be milked. There’s no pushing or prodding, lowering cows’ stress.

“I think the robotic-milked cows are some of the happiest cows around,” said Styger.

Robotic milkers aren’t for everyone, said Styger. Farmers, he said, should be moderately mechanical.

But these three farmers say that for them, robots are worthwhile.

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