Robots are on deck at Marrs Milky Way Dairy in Colorado
November 30, 2018
For Eldon and Hilary Marrs, advertising for employees at the couple's Marrs Milky Way Dairy in Ault, Colo., was no longer about finding a qualified applicant. They found themselves with no applicants, qualified or otherwise.
Facing the same labor challenges as many segments of agriculture in the state, the Marrses took a bold step, building a computerized robotic dairy barn in 2018. In doing so, they filled one of the most labor intensive and oftentimes dangerous, jobs with robots, creating higher tech, less strenuous, skilled jobs for employees they hope to retain.
The couple's dairy is located on the site of the former Tateyama Farm, which had been a dairy since at least the 1920s. Eldon Marrs' family has been one of the state's dairy farm families since the 1940s. When the couple purchased the property, they knew they had to expand to make the operation sustainable.
"We knew you couldn't make a living milking 800 cows with debt," Eldon Marrs said. "There's an efficiency of scale and it's right in that 2,000 head range so we knew we were going to have to expand to survive as a family farm."
Knowing the labor situation was worsening rather than resolving, they began looking into robotics, though labor ultimately became only one of the reasons they have moved in that direction. Marrs said a common misconception about the labor shortage in agriculture is that its roots are in poor wages. He said this isn't the case. A starting salary at the dairy is $15 per hour and jobs, even now, remain unfilled. Marrs said weeks can pass without a single applicant.
The barn they built is the fourth of its kind in the U.S. and the 14th of its kind in the world. The technology used is manufactured by German company GEA, and is used in Europe where dairies are smaller but are dependent upon primarily owner labor, making robotics a good choice to allow the owner to complete other jobs on the farm as well. The 60-stall rotary barn has 60 robots installed on the decks and the robots are milking the cows, allowing deck employees to supervise and assist the robots as needed. This allows the family owned and operated dairy to milk nearly 2,000 cows three times per day with one or two employees in the barn. It has also created a supervisory job managing the robotic system that once was a job that was in close contact with the cows, making it strenuous, repetitive and dirty.
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"That was the beauty of being able to incorporate these technologies as they've gotten much more efficient and field-tested," Hilary Marrs said. "We're able to improve the working conditions and make the job for the employees you have even easier for them to manage so they like their job more and hopefully they stick around."
Much of the repetitive motion that previously fell on employees has been shifted to robots as well. Additionally, employees no longer have to handle any of the chemicals used in the dairy barn involving cleaning or the footbath, now an on-demand spray system to control foot warts that also boasts a reduction in chemical usage.
Cow care is a major factor that is improved through the use of robots as well as accountability, data collection being the key to improvements in both areas. Data is collected from each quarter of the cow's udder at each milking.
"We have always milked cows by the cow," he said. "We now milk by quarter. Every quarter, every shift, every time she comes on the deck, we collect the data on every quarter."
Data allows the robots to identify possible problems and not milk the bad quarter, and tests the milk from each quarter for early detection of illness. If the milk is tested and found unsatisfactory, the robots can milk the cow to empty her udder, isolate and dispose of the milk, ensuring that only quality milk is collected. As the cows exit the rotary,they can be sorted for further monitoring and treated if necessary.
"The data coming out of this is probably the second biggest advantage coming out if this," he said. "The robots look at every cow, every day, without any bias. It's a more reliable, consistent, and accountable milking system."
On the deck, the robots use cameras and reference photos of each cow from her last milking to position and attach the teat cups so the data gathering and milking processes can begin. All the while, video footage of the cows entering the barn, entering the deck, being milked, exiting the deck, and other areas of the property are all streamed to the dairy barn office. On the deck, the employee supervising the robotic system has access to a touch screen that shows a summary of the entire rotary deck and can offer real-time and historical information about each cow, down to the quarter, while she's being milked.
Outside the barn, many traditional jobs are still being completed by employees. A robotic feed pusher is used to introduce fresh feed to the cows multiple times per day in the free-stall barns. However, well-trained employees are still used to care for the baby calves, help cows calve, provide medical treatment to cows, mix rations, deliver feed, clean stalls while cows are in the milking barn, and other day-to-day tasks.
"The nice thing about those jobs is they're not nearly as repetitive and prone to injury as the milkers are," he said. "Most injuries on a dairy come out of the dairy barn."
In terms of being good stewards of the environment, the dairy reclaims the water and energy used to cool the milk to clean the barn and even heat the floor in the winter. The manure is composted and reused for bedding for the cows. Because there were existing homes nearby, to be good neighbors, the Marrses installed extra sound-dampening equipment in the barn to ensure any noise, which is minimal, would be silenced from the outside.
Dairy Specialists, the local GEA dealer, installed and maintains the robots. The barn was built by Design Builders and was completed quickly with construction beginning Feb. 2 and the first milking on Aug. 15.
"In my mind, there's no question the industry is going to have to go to robotics so I think we're just at the forefront of where the industry is going from this point forward," he said. "Robotics will help us as a family farm to continue to provide a high-quality product for our customers with more consistency and accountability, safer working conditions for our employees, and help provide the best possible care for our cows."
Paul Burrell has been working in automated dairy systems with GEA and now, Dairy Specialists, since 2000, and led the installation of the robotic system at Marrs' dairy. Although Burrell has worked around robotics long enough to see a tremendous amount of technological advances, he said the fact that one employee can run the large milking operation still impresses him.
"I always thought it would be easier to find guys who wanted to milk on this thing but in this market, it's still challenging," he said. "If I were a milker, this would be a dream job. You don't get that dirty and you're learning a different skillset than attaching cups by hand."
Burrell ran into an employee at another Colorado dairy who expressed his dismay with Burrell for installing feed pushing robots, a move he felt threatened his job. Employees who embrace the technology, he said, learn a more skilled job while managing an automated process, something that is still needed despite robotics. An employee who can supervise the automated process is more valuable to the dairy and is learning a set of transferrable skills to take elsewhere if desired.
"At the end of the day, someone still needs to manage the process," he said. "The person who takes initiative and learns it and embraces it is going to be the guy they look to when they need someone to run it." ❖
— Gabel is an assistant editor and reporter for The Fence Post. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (970) 392-4410.