Dairy Done Differently

Hope Acres dairy farm puts an automated twist on tradition.  Facing more discerning, health-conscious consumers, food manufacturers are taking a closer look at how they are sourcing their dairy products and ingredients. This may require a visit back to the farm - and manufacturers might be surprised at what they find.

Hope Acres dairy farm puts an automated twist on tradition.

Facing more discerning, health-conscious consumers, food manufacturers are taking a closer look at how they are sourcing their dairy products and ingredients. This may require a visit back to the farm - and manufacturers might be surprised at what they find.

An industry routed in tradition, some modern dairy farms are investing in some very non-traditional automation. Leading the pack is a farm tucked into the green rolling hills of south central Pennsylvania, called Hope Acres.

Owned and operated by the Heindel family, Hope Acres (Brogue, PA) is home to just under 200 cows. But "home" for these cows isn't what you would expect from a typical dairy farm. Seven years ago, the Heindel family took a chance on some very new technology - and that risk, coupled with numerous barn amenity upgrades, has paid off for both the farm and its cows.

Five-star amenities

The Hope Acres barn has several features to assure the comfort of their cows.

  • A motion-activated massager/back scratcher that can be activated by a simple cow nudge.
  • Rubberized flooring to help prevent lameness.
  • Free-roaming barn - cows are not tied or kept in stalls.
  • Waterbeds to help aid bone health.Free access to pasture for dry cows.
  • An automatic manure scraper set to clean the floor every 50 minutes, which helps keep cows clean and prevents them from stepping in manure and getting foot infections.

28 fans on one side of the barn that generate a three mile-per-hour wind to inhibit flies and keep the barn cool, especially in the summer.

Automated milking

The most impressive amenity in the Hope Acres barn - and what sets the operation apart from most farms in the country - is its automated milking systems, which facilitate 24-hour-a-day/7 days-a-week milking.

Inside the barn, cows wait in line to be milked. When it is her turn, the cow walks through a one way gate and enters the robotic milking station. Once inside, the RFID chips in their collars are scanned to identify the cow. The cow is given a "cookie" (a mixture of grain and molasses) as both a distraction during milking and a reward for its efforts.

Once the cow is in the milking room, its teats are cleaned with rotating brushes, then laser-guided milking cups locate the teats and attach themselves to the cow. Once the milking starts, the milk is automatically analyzed using a spectrophotometer for bacteria, blood or medication. The milk is separated by teat, since each one is connected to individual milk sacs within the udder.

If there is any problem with the milk, the milk from that cow is discarded and the robot alerts the farmer via computer that the specific cow needs attention.
The machine then completely sanitizes itself to prepare for the next cow.?
If the milk is satisfactory, it is sent to the common vats to be processed. After the cow is milked, the teats are sprayed with an antibacterial cleanser and the cow leaves the milking room.

On average, it takes new cows around 10 days of "training" with a farmer to learn the automatic system. During training, the cows are milked every 12 hours, and the farmer walks the cow through the one way gates and leads her into the milking station and through the process, using cow cookies as rewards.

The switch to automation

Hope Acres first purchased its Astronaut A2 Robotic Milking Systems in the summer of 2001 from Lely Group, a Holland-based company that sells automatic milking units worldwide. Lely reports that the farm was one of the first of four in the United States to install the automatic systems.

Lely first installed its first automatic milking system in Holland in 1992. Exporting equipment to the U.S. came later (2001), as the regulatory guidelines in the U.S. differ from those in Europe, so some equipment modifications had to be made. In addition, FDA regulations did not allow for the possibility of milking without human involvement, so adjustments were needed on the regulatory end as well.

European labor issues offer a clear explanation for the equipment's popularity.

"Labor issues in Europe differ from those in the U.S.," sites Alfred Kamps, Sales Manager, Dairy Equipment for Lely. "Labor in Europe is very expensive and there are very rigid rules on the hiring and firing of employees."

This made automation a very attractive option for European dairy farmers early on, but the employment situation is changing for U.S. farmers as well. Increasing labor costs and shortages of farm laborers are igniting the push for less labor and higher capital investments on U.S. farms.

Lely anticipates a consequential jump in North American sales and predicts that by the end of 2008, it will have 250 Astronaut units sold in the U.S. and Canada - which is still just a fraction of its 6,000 units sold worldwide.

Staying one step ahead at all times, last year Hope Acres upgraded to the Astronaut A3 units, ?a newer automation platform with additional functionalities.

Making investment decisions

The investment in automation, like any large capital investment, is always going to involve some risk. At around of $180,000 per unit, the decision to purchase automatic milking stations is not something that a small farm could take lightly.

In addition to equipment costs, Aaron Heindel, general manager at Hope Acres, notes that, "most farms would have to make some drastic changes to the barn. We built a whole new facility because the cows need to have the freedom to move around and access milking robots 24 hours a day. Most barns are set up with stalls and would require the farmer to let cows out."

Automating a farm is an investment in the farm's future. Unfortunately, as small farms continue to consolidate or close, many farmers are unsure of their future - a doubt that causes them to hesitate when it comes to making large capital investments.

Dairy pioneers

Hope Acres dairy took a chance on automation, and it has paid off for them in several ways.

Happy cows
Talk to any dairy farmer on a family farm and he or she will tell you that the wellbeing of his/her cows is a priority. It is theorized that cows moo when uncomfortable - this includes being hungry, thirsty, needing to be milked or wanting to go outside. In line with this theory, there is not a single moo to be heard in the Hope Acres barn.

In addition, Hope Acres and its products bear the prestigious Certified Humane Raised & Handled label. Food products that carry this label are certified to have come from facilities that meet precise, objective standards for farm animal treatment, as specified by Humane Farm Animal Care a non-profit certification agency. This is typically a tough certification for dairy farmers to attain due to the required space allowances specified for each cow.

Happy farmers
Traditionally, a family farm meant a lifetime commitment to daily milkings and chores - no weekends, no holidays and no vacations. Automatic milking has literally changed the lives of farmers.

"It gives the farmers a more satisfying way of life," says Heindel. "They no longer have to be tied to that barn at a specific time to milk. I know some farmers who haven't been on a family vacation in thirty years because someone always has to be there to milk the cows."

Production increases
To begin with, the cows at Hope Acres appear to be living longer than the average life expectancy for their breed. The majority of Hope Acres cows are Jerseys. According to USDA statistics, Jerseys average 3.2 calvings in their lifetime, which means that if they calve for the first time at just under two years and then every year thereafter (which is the case at Hope Acres), herd life expectancy would be in the five-six year range. Hope Acres cows, however, are living seven to nine years, with some as old as 11

In addition, milk production on the farm is exceeding expectations. The herd is achieving as much as 3.7 milkings per day, whereas prior to automating, the cows were milked only twice daily.

The milk - which is all natural, with no growth hormones or steroids - is trucked from the barn's holding tank to the other side of the farm to be pasteurized, processed and packaged/bottled into milk, ice cream, half-and-half, butter or yogurt and sold at the on-location Brown Cow Country Market. In addition, the farm has recently added an off-site storage warehouse and starting selling products wholesale.

Labor reduction
Reducing the amount of necessary labor is not only a cost-saving method, but is becoming a crucial issue as farmers struggle to find farm employees. Prior to automation, Hope Acres used to milk 200 cows per day, with six fulltime employees milking twice per day. Each milking required three employees. Today, the farm has only two full-time barn employees and has increased milking to over three times per day. In their spare time, employees started raising (around 80) meat goats on the side.

Automation's future in dairy

The concept of automation in the food industry is sometimes met with criticism, especially in segments such as dairy farming that are heavily rooted in tradition. It is estimated that 99 percent of dairy farms, whether they are larger farms (15,000+ cows) or smaller farms (less than 100 cows) are familyowned and operated - a statistic which not only gives dairy a unique standing in the food industry, but also adds a more personal touch to the business.

The traditional farmer knows his cows because he interacts with them during every milking, every day. He can personally monitor their progress, production and health. An entirely automated milking process takes the farmer out of the equation.

"There is a fear of technology because technology makes people feel like they are losing control. People ask us all the time, 'what happens if the electric goes out?' 'What if the computer goes down?' They are nervous to make the switch to automation because then they can't go back to milking cows the old way," notes Heindel.

Farm size may also play a role in automation decisions. Current automated milking systems are better suited for smaller farms with only a few hundred cows. As each robot can only handle around 50-60 cows (with too many cows, lines start forming for milking), a farmer with 15,000 cows would have to build around 300 separate facilities to accommodate the milking systems.

Heindel is confident that automation was a risk worth taking for his farm and that he would never go back to doing things "the old way." While just seven years ago Hope Acres boasted unheard of innovation in dairy farming, the automated approach to farming is quickly proving itself in the U.S. "I believe as the newness wears off, people will become more accepting of it," says Heindel. "It is the future of dairy farming." For videos of the Hope Acres plant tour, visit FMTV and use keyword: dairy.