Robot Farmers


I’ve milked heaven knows how many cows over nearly a lifetime and never in a million years could I ever have predicted what is happening now. I won’t believe it until I see it with my own eyes, but the dairy industry claims that it now has robotic milking units that milk the cows without any human intervention at all.  Mrs. Cow is trained to saunter into a “robotic” milking stall on a giant turntable when she has the urge to be milked, eats her grain nonchalantly while electronic sensors wash her udders, attach the milkers, empty her bag, and detach the milkers. Other electronic sensors monitor her health while she is milking herself. I suppose her cholesterol and blood pressure could be checked too. This would probably be a good time for a glowing reporter from the Happy Factory Society to interview her about how wonderful are giant, consolidated, animal confinement systems these days. She might have something interesting to say about health care, since hers is subsidized almost as completely as that of our Senators. Then she wanders out of her stall and lolls beside the manure lagoon on her robotic spa until she feels the urge to be milked again.

I have to conclude that today’s Mrs. Cow, while probably giving more milk than my Betsy in the days of yore, is not nearly as smart. Betsy would have learned how to beat the Happy Factory system in about four days and started frequenting the “robotic” stall every twenty minutes to get more grain which she loved dearly. In six months of robotic milking, she would have gained 500 pounds.  Five thousand of her ilk would have bankrupted the Happy Factory and sent the price of corn soaring even higher than the romantic dreams of robotic farming.

It is not the notion of robotic milkers than amazes me so much. Our cars and trucks are being put together mostly by robots, so I suppose robot milkers are on the way too. It is the smarmy and naive felicity with which the press reports this kind of progress that floats me off into a dreamy world of make-believe. Reports, which are written by people who sound as if they have never seen a cow until yesterday, let alone ever milked one, inspire me to imagine the days when electronics will take care of everything. In just a year or two, it appears, electronic sensors will make the manure that follows Mrs. Cow around disappear magically into thin air. Electronic sensors out in the fields (often hundreds of miles away from Mrs. Cow) will protect the corn from insects, diseases and weeds and will turn on gentle rain showers as needed. The corn will yield 400 bushels per acre anyway, and be spirited out of the fields and into the cow factories by unmanned Drones.  Electronic sensors will dry the corn properly, grind it into meal and sift it away to Mrs. Cow’s  robotic milking stall. Nothing will ever break down. There will be no need for farmers. They will all be working in factories, making robots that never wear out.

At the very end of these winsome reports comes the real shocker. One (just ONE) of these robotic milking units costs $200,000. And a large dairy will need two or three.

By the time robots take over farming, I imagine the cost of milk will be in the neighborhood of  $120 a gallon.  Nooooo problem.  Just increase the size of your milking herd by another 300,000 cows or so.

Tractors have gone robotic too. This is good news for us wordsmiths, strange as that may seem. I happened to look inside the cab of one of the tractors that can drive itself across the field without benefit of clergy or anyone else. The cab resembled the console and cockpit of a 747 jet.. Right there beside the air conditioner was a stack of magazines, not all of them necessarily the kind you leave out on your living room coffee table.  The farmer grinned sheepishly. “Gotta have some way to stay awake,” he explained.

“Why’s that?” I asked. “If the thing runs itself, why do you have to stay awake. Why even be there at all?”

He grinned again. “Well, they haven’t figured out yet how to get the tractor to know precisely when it should turn itself around at the end of the field.”

Then, after swearing me to secrecy as to the person involved, he told me what he claims is a true story. To appreciate it, you have to understand the lay of our land here in north central Ohio.  Much of it, as in this case, is fairly flat with lonely single-lane country roads creasing across it every mile. No fences, no trees, no nothing. Such roads are no challenge at all for today’s monster robot tractors. So the guy I am sworn not to mention by name fell asleep as he and his rig groaned across the trackless fields. When his monster came to a road, it barely shivered as it crunched through the roadside ditch and chisel-plowed half way across the thoroughfare before its master awoke and got it stopped.

Stay tuned. More robot farm stories on the way. Maybe you’ve got some to add to the robotic literature?


We’ve had one of those robot dairy farms down the road here NZ since last year
Only this one has automatic back scratching brushes which apparently the cows really like 😉
I don’t remember any of the articles I saw saying anything about how much it costs to set up though or whether it disrupts the milk tanker schedules.

Gene – Ralph Levzow voted against allowing raw milk sales in Wisconsin as a member of the Farm Bureau in Wisconsin in December 2009 so my guess is he’s still in business.

Kerri in AK

Once upon a time there was a science-fiction author named Issac Asimov, who wrote a number of books and stories on robots and the relationships between robots and humans. In nearly every case, the point of the story was that there were ALWAYS unintended consequences, ripple effects and just plain bad outcomes of humans thinking they knew best about mechanical inventions and the ways in which they should be used. Guess the folks who thunk up these fancy cow-milking machines never read Asimov. And at my house, it wouldn’t just be the cow who was accessing the Happy Factory system–our stud horse would be in there too, trying to figure out how he could get hooked up and get extra grain!

Kyle, I looked up that article. I guess it must be legit. It’s not April Fools day yet. Teresa, Yes forever the romantics. Nathan, I’d like a robotic sheep to kill dogs that chase sheep.Kerri, I wonder if that dairy you describe is still in business. Gene

Teresa Sue Hoke-House January 21, 2010 at 9:01 am

I have two emotions surface when I read your article. First is the humor of it all. Granted, I’m prejudiced when it comes to your work because I think you’re best thing since zippers, you always have enough truth in your humor that makes it so funny. The second emotion is mostly anger. Not at you. The anger is directed at people who invent this stuff. I guess I’m just a romantic, because to me the relationship the farmer has with his land, his livestock, his LIFESTYLE is sacred. It certainly isn’t anything a robot can appreciate. But, then again, to me farming isn’t about the money…and that, is what it is all about, isn’t it? I’d rather be the romantic.

Good lord. One more reason for parity – give farmers a guaranteed way to make a living on a reasonable scale, and there will be no economic pressure toward this type of insanity.

Gene, did you hear they’re trying to recreate Aurochs through “back-breeding”? (More likely genetic engineering). Not sure what the plan is here:

If only the animals and crops could be robotic also.


When I was working at the library in the small community of Wyocena, WI, one of the local small dairies installed not one but two robotic milkers. They seemed to spend a fair bit of time giving tours to everybody and their brother – maybe because the robotic milkers freed them up? They had Holsteins and Jerseys and the milkers were sized appropriately. I took the tour once with the Wyocena Garden Club but have now forgotten how much it cost them. Lots and lots I’m sure. It was interesting how they had their milking barn set up. It was divided in half with Holsteins on one side and Jerseys on the other. Each side was set up with a circular path since the milkers had an entrance and an exit – cows couldn’t turn around and go back in. Also, what kept the cows from just hanging out in the milker and eating the grain until it was gone was taken care of by the milker. Once all four cups dropped off, the grain (conveniently located in a bowl) was swung away inside the milker and the exit gate opened. Not much reason to stay in the milker at that point. Two more interesting features of this barn were a mechanical manure scrape and enormous overhead fans (think ceiling fans on steroids). The scrape, which was maybe 2″ high, moved continuously but very slowly up and down the paths. It was slow enough for the cows to pick up their feet when bumped by one. The Levzow’s decided that it was a heck of a lot more efficient to keep the cows cool with overhead fans that the more typical types installed in the walls at the ends of barns. Mind you, their milking barn housed a total of 60 cows so I’m guessing you won’t see quite this elaborate a set up in the mega dairies.

Here’s a brief article from 2006 about them from the local paper, the Portage Daily Register:

Kerri in AK

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