Woodstock dairy implements robotic milkers

Thomas French, 20, a third-generation member of French Brothers Dairy, stands beside a robot while a cow is milked inside the Water Street dairy in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily

WOODSTOCK — These days, machines can do everything. They can wash a car, access the internet and navigate roads worldwide. But can they milk cows?

At French Brothers Dairy in Woodstock, yes they can.

In March, Billy French first turned on his two new robotic milking machines. Construction on them began last August.

The machines clean cows’ udders before latching on and drawing milk from them. Then the  machines scale out and deliver the cows’ feed according to how much milk they produced. The cows are incentivized to walk into the milking chambers of their own accord, without being herded.

Tom French, Billy French’s son, works on the farm with his father. Tom French said that the farm works with between 110 and 150 cows at a given time and milking each cow takes about 3 1/2 hours out of the day. That’s not to mention that cows need to be milked at least twice a day, three times if possible. Before French Brothers Dairy bought the robots, the workday started at 4 a.m. and went until 8 p.m., every day of the year.

Thomas French holds the door open on a robot to show milk entering a holding tank. Rich Cooley/Daily

Another issue for the farm was the labor market for milking cows. Billy French said a milking job pays about $9 per hour. The tricky part is that half that workday comes early in the morning, and half later at night, which made it difficult to keep employees around for long.

“When we got the robots, we were looking for more time,” he said. “It’s hard to be tied down with a diverse farm with chickens and crops as well.”

Looking for a change, French Brothers Dairy bought two LELY robotic milkers. The dairy  is the eighth farm in the state to acquire them.

Given the reduction in labor costs of the machines, both Tom and Billy French said the robots should recoup their own costs within eight years.

The transition from hand-milking to using the robots was not an easy one. Billy French said cows tend to follow one another and move as a herd. So getting them to stand in the narrow quarters of the machine’s reach while others waited was no easy task.

Robots use laser technology and the electronic data on each cow to line up the machine to the cow for the milking process. Rich Cooley/Daily

“The first day we used these things, they kicked the snot out of it,” he said.

Since then, however, the cows have grown used to the new system. While there is no certainty, Billy French said the animals seem to be complacent given that they don’t buck while being milked, and maintain normal yields and weight.

Along with milking the cows, the machines gather floods of data for Billy and Tom French to analyze. It instantly measures the cows’ milk to check for health or hormone issues, and stores things like yield data, cow weight, date since the cow’s last insemination or calving, and its stomach ruminations.

The new challenge Tom and Billy French are facing now is analyzing the data to find the important information among all the clutter.

“We’re just learning,” Billy French said. “We’re trying to figure out what all this means … Do we have too much information? Or do we need to use the information we have, that’s what we’re working on.”

Thomas French shows an app on his iPhone that displays data on the dairy herd and milking process. The computer system automatically alerts the staff by cell phone when a problem is detected. Rich Cooley/Daily

Since they started using the robots, Billy and Tom French have seen their duties switch over from hands-on farming to data analysis, and making sense of how to work out the kinks.

Billy French estimates that 10 percent of his cows aren’t adjusting as well as the others to the robots, so he’s looking through all the information the robots provide to figure out why.

In the meantime, the family is trying to work the kinks out of the new system. The Virginia Cooperative Extension Services hosts meetings for the robotic milking farmers to trade tips with. Billy French said he’s pleasantly surprised with how open the discussions are about trading information. Likewise, most owners are in a Facebook group together to stay in touch with the latest information.

Down the line, Billy French said he is looking to see if his investment will pay off within the eight years as he projected, and maybe even thinking about picking up another robot.

Contact staff writer Jake Zuckerman at 540-465-5137 ext. 152, or jzuckerman@nvdaily.com

A Holstein cow rests under a brush that was part of the robotic milking system purchase. Rich Cooley/Daily

Thomas French walks inside the dairy barn where cows await to be milked by two robotic milking stations on the left. Rich Cooley/Daily

Thomas French walks past a line of Holstein cows inside a barn on Water Street in Woodstock. Rich Cooley/Daily