Story published: July 7, 2020

David Berning looks over his 480 milking cows at the family farm, Green Waves Farm. A fourth-generation dairy farmer at the St. Michael, Minn., location, he opted to return to the family business after college.

“In any job, you have to really like what you’re doing, and my life revolves around these cows,” he said.

All of the milk produced at the farm is sold to Land O’ Lakes. With the introduction of robots to help milk cows, Berning and his family have been able to more than double their herd. Instead of spending the bulk of their day milking the cows themselves, the robots do the work, which frees up Berning to work on other tasks. But it’s still a full day, and the robots can break down. They’re also pricey; a search on the internet show they can run $200,000 a piece. Still, robots have proved to be the right choice for Berning.

“The biggest thing in dairy is finding people that want to work. At a minimum, I work 72 hours a week, I work weekends, I work holidays. How many people are going to do that?” he asked.

With wages edging up along with a scarcity of available workers, labor had become a huge question mark for the future of the farm. Berning now has eight robots on his farm, each one set up in its own milking stall. Cameras and sensors attach to the cows, and can report back to Berning how production is going. Each robot services 60 cows. And the cows wear collars that act like fitbits that monitor their health.  

“I think going forward, unless you can find a way to cut costs or find a niche market, if you’re a small farm, you need robots,” Berning said.

Nearby in Pennock, Minn., another dairy family has also turned to robots to assist their operation. Chad and Carl Carlson are also fourth-generation dairy farmers. You might say they learned lifelong lessons as both farm kids and collegiate wrestlers.

“We were always the last ones to leave the wrestling room. Doing the extra sprints, the extra pushups. If we did extra, we’d be one up on our opponents,” Chad Carlson said.

“And the longer we stayed in practice, we wouldn’t have to work here,” Carl quips.

But an aging workforce and salary pressures also affect their farm, with about 1,650 cows milking through a rotary robotic system. The carousel fits 60 cows at a time, and it’s the only one in the state, and one of only about 10 nationwide.

“Minimum wage is increasing. It’s getting more expensive to have employees, and the more employees you have hurts your bottom line, and another thing is not a lot of people want to do this work anyway,” Carl said, echoing a common sentiment in the industry.

“It’s kind of like a merry-go-round at the fair – they’re on it for eight minutes, three times a day, they seem like they really enjoy it,” Chad said.

But the Carlsons concede that it’s not for everyone. Some farms only want to milk a few cows, and they are doing okay, they say. But for the Carlsons, the two-year experiment seems to be working. It has yet to pay for itself – Carl said that will take years – but it has allowed them to better compete on volume and consistency. And less repetitive motion work means it’s less physical for themselves and their employees.

Jim Salfer, an educator at the University of Minnesota Extension office, said robots can be a solid solution for mid-sized family farms.

“They are really too big for a family to manage, so they have to have hired labor, but they’re not quite big enough to capture the advantages of scale,” he said.

Salfer said now 10% to 15% of all dairy farms in the state have some robots. Ten years ago, there were none.

“It’s really growing rapidly,” he said.

lt’s a new reality that the Carlsons say they could not have imagined. Eighty years ago, when their father Curtney was born, their grandfather had only eight cows. Now, Curtney said he feels nothing but pride for the bold direction his sons have taken.

“I’m glad the next generation, my grandkids, most of them seem interested. And if they don’t, there’s lots of other things, but it would be nice if a couple of them come back and keep it going,” he said.

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