Milking machines revolutionizing local dairy

HOWARD — Everywhere you look, the jobs once done by humans are increasingly being turned over to machines. Especially on farms, technology may represent a savior for some — reducing time, material and labor costs — and lead to ruin for those who come to realize it too late.

In an effort to connect with and educate consumers on what it takes to make the variety of milk products we enjoy every day, and to shed light on the role technology is playing in the barn, dairyman Lowell Smith, of Smith Stock Farms in Howard, invited The Spectator to check out his automated milk parlor.

A farm has been on the property since 1832, growing from humble beginnings as a 52 acre property to one that is now 2,100 acres and is home to 1,400 cows — 600 of which will be milked on a given day. That's a lot of work, in addition to growing its own feed and grains.

"We take pride in being stewards of the soils and the livestock," Smith said, who also noted that dairy products are New York's second largest agricultural product.

As some smaller farms consider closing their doors as dairy prices fluctuate, Smith Stock Farms is looking forward to the future, thanks to the deployment of robotic milking to address problems as old as the industry.

"Labor is hard to find, and quality labor is harder to find. It's also more expensive every year," Smith said. "At the end of the day, you just didn't know what kind of job you were going to get. Sometimes it was just people going through the motions. With this, you know what to expect every day."

The 10 machines relieved Smith the cost of employing 12 migrant workers that cost an estimated $300,000 annually.

While the machines represent a multi-million dollar investment, Smith saw it as an investment in the future, and an assurance that the 6th generation farm would be around for a seventh.

Only a handful of companies in the world manufacture robotic milking machines. Smith chose DeLaval, a Swedish manufacturer who services his machines out of a location in Castile, NY.

"We've had DeLaval machinery since we had electricity here," he said.

The cows enter a machine, where a magnetic bar reads the RFID chip in their ear tag. The chip stores vital information like the cow's last milking, its yield, and any concerns with its production. Feed is dispensed as a reward for entering the machine; the machine stimulates the udder, producing oxytocin that tells the cows to lactate. Lasers then scan the cow's utter in order to locate the teats. The area is washed with a water and antiseptic mixture, and a robotic arm swings suction hoses into place, and collects milk over a 7-10 minute process.

It was a six-week process, introducing all the cows to the mechanized process. 

In addition to doing much of the work, the statistics kept by the robotic milking machine also make it easier for Smith and farmers like him to show compliance with DEC and Health Department standards, as well as animal welfare concerns, going so far as to indicate the cow's health. If they miss a turn in the milking machine, something may be wrong, or has been bred, or is calfing.

"It results in better care for for them. When we would take them up to the old milk parlor 2-3 times a day, they would be uneasy. Not with the robot," Smith said.

In between milking, the cows live in a barn on beds of sawdust, where temperatures are climate controlled — assuring that cows are happy and producing the best possible milk.

Smith and other farmers hope that more people, especially adults, will take the opportunity to learn more about how dairy products get to market, and how fragile the supply chain can be.

To learn more about dairy farming in our area, check out Cornell Cooperative Extension's "Agiculture" page at