MT. AIRY, MARYLAND — John Fendrick is a dairyman with a problem.
“I don’t like milking,” he said.
His small herd of Guernsey cows churns out about 475 liters of milk a day at Woodbourne Creamery in Mt. Airy, Maryland. But Fendrick never has to touch an udder.
He’s got a robot to do it for him.
Don’t think C3PO. Or even R2D2. This one is more General Motors than Star Wars.
As each cow walks into the milking stall, a laser-guided robotic arm whirrs into place.
It locates each teat, cleans it and attaches a milking tube. A sensor checks the milk for contamination and automatically spits out any rejects. When the flow of milk slows down, the machine knows to stop, detach the tubes and send the cow on its way.
“The cows really seem to like it,” Fendrick said. It took a few tries to get them used to the robot, but, “once they knew there’s a little food at the front, they walked right in.”
Milking robots are catching on around the country and in Europe and Australia.
The best thing about the robot, Fendrick says, is the freedom it gives the farmer. Most dairies are tied to the cows’ schedule of early morning and late evening milkings, twice a day, every day, rain or shine.
But Fendrick’s cows decide for themselves when they want to come in from the pasture. Some come in in the middle of the night.
Fendrick doesn’t even need to be there to watch them. He can watch from his phone. He can find out when each cow milked last and how much she produced. It will even tell him when one has not been in for a while.
Price of freedom
Milking robots are not cheap.
His cost Fendrick more than $150,000. But, he says, paying someone to milk the cows is not cheap, either.
“In three years, I will have paid off the difference,” he said, “and I don’t have to be the person who’s always on call to milk.”
Compare that to a friend who’s milking the old-fashioned way: “In 13 years, he’s taken about 5 or 6 days of vacation,” Fendrick said.
The cows are a kids' project gone wild. Nearly 20 years ago, his family started raising sheep at an old farmhouse he renovated. A clerk at the feed store convinced him to try raising a cow. His kids loved showing the cow at farm fairs. One cow became two, which became three. Pretty soon he had 55.
But his family didn't milk them. The cows were in "day care" at another farm. Buying the robot meant they could take care of the cows full-time, but not have to watch them full-time.
“The fact that we have a life, and our cows are able to function without us -- to us, it’s well worth the money.”