LTC Instructor: Agriculture continues high-tech emphasis

July 31, 2013

From “Agriculture continues high-tech emphasis” — By Greg Booher, LTC farm business instructor – 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 an 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 reducing input costs. When the investment in this high-tech equipment is spread 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 find 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 herd management tools have the ability to catch something wrong with a cow before a human can detect something is wrong or, in some instances, before the cow herself knows she is getting sick.

Robotic milking

Robotic milking has been used by a very few U.S dairymen for almost 15 years. Although only a handful of Wisconsin producers have successfully used robotic milking, European producers have made great strides adopting robotic milking. A major reason why American dairymen have been slow to adopt this technology is due to the cost of the technology in comparison to the cost to manually milking cows. Labor in the U.S. is a lot lower than other countries.

I recently had the opportunity to talk with a 1,200-cow Australian dairyman about their labor costs. The Australian government has strict wage and labor controls. The government mandates dairy farm labor will be paid the equivalent of $25 per hour US and 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 more rapid payback is possible.

I am currently working on some feasibility studies, but have not found much real-time data to help make a definitive decision comparing conventional parlor milking with 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 like 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.

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