In case you don't know the definition of the word "change," don't worry. Webster's defines change as "when something is different from what it is or from what it would be if left alone."
Some days I am all for new technology and other days I would like to just leave things alone.
Rather than writing a disclaimer at the end of this column, I will go ahead and verbalize it right now. I am writing this so folks who fight change or who normally are slow to change will not quit reading at the end of this sentence. If you have a passion for agriculture, I hope you will read all the way to the end.
The term "precision agriculture" has recently entered the American vernacular. The term can be used in regards to many of the new developments in agriculture. Global positioning is literally allowing crop producers to drive their equipment within less than inch of where planting is desired. Although the technology is very expensive, the equipment has been able to increase production while at the same time reduce input costs.
When investment in this high-tech equipment is spread out over enough acres, the cost per unit of production can drop dramatically. As old equipment reaches the end of its useful life, producers can weigh the decision either to replace the planter or hire a custom operator who has the high-tech equipment and reap the benefits of the newest technology.
The processes of managing herd health and the milking of cows is coming under a metamorphosis. Some early adaptors are already using cloud-based computer technology to learn when cows are ready to be bred, when they have a change in rumen health or a spike in their body temperature.
In fact, these high-tech herd management tools have the ability to catch something wrong with a cow before a human is able to or, in some instances, before the cow herself knows she is getting sick.
In the last 15 years, robotic milking has been used by only a handful of U.S dairymen. Although a small population of Wisconsin producers have successfully integrated robotic milking into their operation, European producers have made great strides in adopting robotic milking.
A major reason why American dairymen have been slow to adopt this technology is due to the cost comparison to the cost to manually milk cows. Labor in the U.S. is a lot cheaper than other countries. I recently had an opportunity to talk with a 1,200-cow Australian dairyman about his labor costs.
The Australian government has strict wage and labor controls. It mandates dairy farm labor will be paid the U.S. equivalent of $25 per hour. Remember: Their dairy milk price is lower than the average in the United States. Therefore, it is not hard to understand that high-tech labor-saving tools will be more quickly adopted where a quick payback is possible.
I am working on some feasibility studies but have not found much real-time data to help make a definitive decision comparing conventional parlor milking using employees to robotic milking. Each robot has a price tag of approximately $250,000 and can milk up to only 60 cows per robot.
Some initial results have indicated improvement in detecting sick cows, improved reproductive performance, some flexibility in how the herd is managed and in some cases it appears production may improve. Certainly the labor paid to milk cows is way less, but the investment is substantial. Time will tell how bottom-line indicators such as return on investment will shake out.
If you have some interest in studying precision dairy management, give me a call and we can discuss this over a long cup of coffee.