The Atlantic

The Cow-Milking Robots Keeping Small Farms in Business

Around the country, dairy farms are struggling to stay open, embracing technology may be one way to make them more efficient.
Source: Greta Rybus

Ever since Nate Tullar was a toddler, when adults asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up, he knew what to tell them. In the ’50s, Tullar’s grandparents, George and Barbara, had bought Tullando Farm, a dairy farm located along the Connecticut River in Orford, a town in northwest New Hampshire, and started out milking a dozen cows; his parents, Rendell and Karen, had taken up the business after them. Tullar grew up milking and feeding cows, and showing them at fairs. He knew he would be a dairy farmer, too.

These days, this kind of career conviction is one—perhaps the only—logical reason for a young person to become a dairy farmer, especially at the small-scale dairy operations of the Northeast and Midwest. The high cost of barns, farm equipment, and cows, plus volatile prices for milk and feed, reward larger operations that can spread production costs over more animals. In 1987, produced about, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture; by 2017, While dairy farms had a median of 80 or fewer cows in 1987, that figure increased to 900 cows more than a quarter-century later. Nowadays, dairies in the West and Southwest can have 15,000 or 20,000 milking cows, Dave Swartz, an assistant director of programs for animal systems with Penn State Extension, told me.

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