Skip to comments.Robot Farm: How farms are planting the seeds of technological progress
Posted on 11/03/2017 6:04:40 PM PDT by 2ndDivisionVet
Agriculture is big business in Indiana. The US Census Bureau places the Hoosier State firmly in the top ten farming states with 11.2 billion dollars in annual sales. Farmers, faced with a labor shortage and declining profit, are quickly adopting robotic technology to ensure their family businesses stay afloat. These farms, like Superior Dairy in Garrett, are not your fathers farms.
Not Your Fathers Farm
Step onto the lot of Superior Dairy in Garrett, and the smell hits you right away.
Its not foul, not like a hog farm. Instead, its earthy, with notes of hay, mud and hints of manure. It smells like a farm should, though it does not overpower. The red barn anchors the gravel lot. Red metal sides give way to open windows. Cows peek through the openings from their sandy beds. Large garage doors allow access to the interior, where the 214 dairy cows seem relaxed as they walk about aimlessly. Debra and Tim Haynes own this family business. They seem proud of their herd.
We should have 250 cows by the end of the year, explained Mrs. Haynes, as black and brown spotted heads strained to watch their caretaker speak to the strangers with cameras. Everything in this barn is designed with their comfort in mind.
The Hayness pointed out fans and sprinklers that automatically switch on when the air temperature rises above a pre-determined value. Fabric blinds open and close to control light levels and cold wind. All the while, a red barrel shaped robot named Juno traces a path through the barn dropping feed for the hungry cows. Big tongues reach out and pull the hay into gaping mouths. This is a modern dairy.
The heart of this operation is in a nearby room. Two machines each the size of an industrial refrigerator are constantly humming and whirring. These are Lely robots. Their job is to do what generations of dairy farmers have always done themselves.
They [the cows] just walk right into them. The robots do all the milking. They do the cleaning of the udder, said Mrs. Haynes. This is not your fathers farm.
The gentle cows, motivated by the promise of food, voluntarily step upon a metal platform. As they munch in that characteristically bovine way, a gleaming robot arm swings in beneath them. A red laser scans the underside of the animal, noting the position of the udder and teats. The machine then attaches its octopus cups and the milking commences. As Mrs. Haynes watches, she explains its all about efficiency and volume.
The average milk in our herd is 92.3 pounds of milk per cow per day, explained Haynes. Thats up from 84-pounds of milk per cow per day.
The increase in milk volume justifies the $210,000 cost of each Lely robot. For modern farmers, volume and efficiency are the two most important keywords especially with the price of milk falling. With this system, the cows are milked twice a day. More milk going out, means more money coming in.
In Indiana, agriculture brings in a great deal of money. Its the industry that grew this state out of frontier forests and prairies.
In terms of economy, [agriculture] brings in billions of dollars in revenue a year, said Josh Wolff of Purdue Universitys Allen County Extension. In Allen County alone we look at $400 million in GDP each year.
According to the Indiana Business Research Center at IUs Kelly School of Business, Indiana farms produced $42.6 billion in commodity sales in 2012. Thats more economic power than many states have in their agriculture sectors. Which is why farmers like the Haynes family, are willing to invest in expensive equipment. It gives them a chance to compete well into the future.
IN THE FIELD
Automation isnt limited to the dairy. It its taking root in nearly every system onboard combine harvesters and tractors. The mechanized behemoths kick up dust across Indianas 14.7 million acres of farmland each autumn.
As they rumble over the row crops, combines are tracking every soy bean pod or ear of corn they take in. Crop productivity data is harvested and sent to the farmer. The machines use signals from GPS satellites high above the Earth, to pinpoint their location and drive themselves with precision. Although an operator sits in the cockpit, no hands are on the steering wheel.
The modern combine harvester as more lines of computer code than the space shuttle did when it first launched in 1981, explains Chad Lantz of Troxel Equipment. These machines are about 80 percent electronic and 20 percent mechanical.
Mr. Lantz would know. Hes been fixing combines and tractors for years. Now, he can do most of the work without leaving his office. Each implement is connected to the internet through a cellular connection. Engine performance, speed and direction are tracked and sent in near real-time to Lantz at Troxels office in Bluffton. He can fine tune operating parameters from the comfort of his office chair.
These machines can tell me of a problem before it turns into a bigger one, Lantz explained.
FROM THE AIR
Monitoring soil conditions and moisture is critical to a successful farm. Increasingly, drones are used to surveil a field from hundreds of feet above. Using infrared cameras, the flying eyes can measure crop density and soil moisture, relaying that information in real time to the farm or agronomist below. That information can be fed to the fertilizer supplier who can then mix up a specialized recipe and know exactly how to apply it
Farmers ultimately measure success in terms of dollars and cents. Their scale is in the millions of dollars. In the 21st, century, farmers are having a challenge keeping their businesses profitable. Automation is helping them realize efficiencies while minimizing the amount of human labor needed. And for Debra Haynes, the technology offers her family something that cant be measured by economists or computers.
Now we can enjoy Christmas morning without having to first milk the cows and then have Christmas.
The family has more time to be a family, while the robots take care of the cows.
See the full report, Friday on Newsline 9 at 10.
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