This article appeared in the February 15, 2017 issue of The St. Albans Messenger - There are also numerous photos in The Messenger with this article which was written by:
By JOEL LEHMAN
FLETCHER - Kelly Sweet and his family were at a crossroads four years ago. Faced with falling milk prices and an aging barn on about 500 acres of rolling hillside, the fifth generation farmer was prepared to make a sink-or-swim decision.
Sweet, who lives on a typically Vermont farm on Fairfax Road with his wife, Joan, mother, father and four children, invested nearly $2 million in robotic systems to increase efficiency in milking over 230 cows, plus caring for calves and dry cows.
A new barn was built in 2012, retrofitted with four automatic milking robots, a feed sweeper, automatic calf feeding systems and even a manure flushing system activated with a switch to clean the barn.
Sweet won't tell you the robotic systems have made farming any easier, not with how far milk prices have fallen recently in Vermont. But, says Sweet, a skilled farmer can use the tools to increase efficiency; while having more flexibility to manage the daily chores.
"The whole thing is, do you want to keep farming?" Sweet says about the decision his family faced. "Our old facility was completely worn out. If you're going to do something new, you have a blank piece of paper. How do you want to do it?"
Sweet turned to Godin Mechanical in Enosburg, purchasing four Lily automatic milkers that sit in a control room at the center of the barn. Cows enter the stalls themselves as frequently as they need to be milked, rather than on a human milker's schedule. That means that cows can be milked as many as three to five times over 24 hours.
With the four automated milkers, Sweet says production rose from 50 to 54 pounds of milk per cow, per day to 80 to 84 pounds of milk.
Four touchscreen monitors are accessed from the control room in the center of barn, with motors whirrmg loudly while cows enter and leave stalls as the devices continuously work. Sweet says that if a milker goes down, a text is sent automatically to his phone, so production doesn't fall in the middle of the night.
The barn was retrofitted to the devices to optimize efficiency. Each cow has the optimal amount of space for eating and producing milk. Counting the calves and dry cows in separate barns, Sweet says he has about 450 dairy animals. The Sweets also tap about 20,000 trees for sugaring and run an excavating business from the same property.
"You can't put this in and expect to milk cows while you sit on the couch," Sweet says. "Our parlor was completely worn out, the rest of the barn wasn't up to speed with doing what we need to do with cows today to survive."
The robotic milkers are the centerpiece, but they are only the beginning of the robotic overhaul.
At the other end of the barn, a device that most closely resembles a large, red R2D2 from Star Wars methodically works its way around the perimeter of the barn, beeping as it travels in front of the cow stalls.
As dairy cows eat, they sort through the feed, continuously pushing it with their noses until most of the feed is out of reach. Typically; farmers would have to come by several times a day pushing the feed back toward the cows.
This red and silver robot, about 4 feet tall, follows a sonar track around the rail, doing a full lap around the barn on the hour, sweeping the feed back toward the cows. On every lap, it brushes past its own battery charger, running day and night on a loop.
Sweet says that one summer, the device broke down for a day; and the family was forced to shovel the feed the traditional way; by hand. They dropped 600 pounds of milk production the next day.
"They eat more. It's more consistently the same. And the cows hear it coming. They know it's pushing the feed up," Sweet says about the $22,000 device. "That there pays for itself."
In the calf barn, another device mixes dry milk and water to produce formula in an automated dispensing system on a rubberized teat that the calves can go to whenever they are hungry. They grow faster and healthier with the device, Sweet says, and the machine mixes a consistent formula which the calves can have any time of day or night.
All the dairy systems operate by reading a chip in collars worn by the cows and calves. The chips read data on each individual cow's production, the protein content of the milk, the milking time and dozens of other fields that Sweet can use to optimize his efficiency.
If a cow is sick, a computer in an office sorts them into a group so farmers can check on them. If a cow's milking time is too slow, he can make decisions on whether they need to be replaced. The computer keeps track of insemination and fertilization information, too.
"Every cow is different. It gives you the tools to see, how can I be better." Sweet says "Its all about efficiencies.
Before heading into the calf barn, Sweet flicks a switch. Suddenly, 4 inches of water flood the length of the barn inside the stalls, washing the manure through a long drainage system and into the pits outside.
That, plus automatic curtain doors that rise or fall on the sides of the barn based on temperature, keep the cows healthier and happier and producing 'more milk, Sweet says.
Which is all his family can do, even as milk prices fall, making profitability impossible, at least for now.
"You can control your part as much as you can. The rest is out of our control so there's not much sense in worrying about that," Sweet says. "This year has been stressful, yeah. Borrow money to pay bills that's not how you want to go to work. You're losing money evert day that you go to work."
Sweet says he still remembers the night they moved the cows into the new barn, and introduced them to the milking machine they now all seem to be accustomed to. Sweet points to the silence of the barn - just whirring machines, hardly any mooing - to demonstrate how happy the cows are.
Sweet says he's heard from farmers both locally and across Franklin County who have said the same thing - automation has led to happier cows and higher milk production.
It's these machines that will allow Sweet's four children to continue farming, if they want.
"It's about getting better all the time. Every year we are above what we were last year. Better productlon. Better cows," Sweet adds.