Fort Report: Small Farm, Big Tech

Sep 22, 2018
Fort Report

When Kelsey left her family farm in Lindsay for the University of Nebraska, she told her father, “Lincoln is the smallest town I will ever live in.”  Now living with her husband Bob and their four children, she milks dairy cows near Creston, Nebraska.  Population: 208.

The Larsons are the next generation of young farmers.  Their dairy farm is small, but it is powered by big tech.  I had the opportunity this week to review their operation.  It was riveting.  The dairy herd is primarily Holstein with some Holstein/Jersey mix, but what makes their farm unique is the application of advanced robotic technology, a new “cow tech.”

Kelsey and Bob own 400 cows, a definite contrast to the trend of larger and larger aggregation in agriculture.  Four large robotic devices maintain the herd.  Here’s how it works.  As the cow enters the milking pen, lasers scan and map the underbelly.  The robotic device then washes, disinfects, and dries the udder, and suction cups align for milking.  A cow is milked anywhere between three and six times a day.  A good yield is about 100 pounds per day.  Milking a cow used to take 15 minutes.  The cow that I watched was milked in 5.2 minutes, yielding 22.2 pounds of milk.  The combined technological devices give multiple data sets, keeping track of milk quality, frequency of milking, how much each cow has eaten, and even how many steps each cow has taken.

Here’s what’s interesting: The cow decides her schedule.  When she feels ready, she enters the pen and seeks out the machine on her own.  As an enticement, a special ration called “candy” is put in front of her.  If the computer determines it is too soon between milkings, the system doesn’t start.  She exits until she is ready again.  As Bob told me, “It’s easier to train the cow than people.  I had to get used to not pushing the herd and no more scheduled milkings.” As I surveyed the barn, it seemed to me that the cows were pretty content. 

Beyond new milking and monitoring models, the farm is pushing the envelope in other compelling ways.  Solar energy provides about 20% of the farm’s electricity.  Automated water mechanisms sweep manure from the barn, at which point it is recycled and reused to fertilize the fields, eliminating some of the hardest, sloppiest work.  The surrounding farm land is used to supply their own feed.  They make their own ration, which a nutritionist analyzes every few weeks.  

Running a dairy is not without challenges. One problem in ag country is finding persons who are interested in doing this difficult labor.  By reducing the need for labor, the advanced technology enables a new economy of scale: smaller, more efficient—while providing more sustainable jobs for those employed.

The government does touch the operation but only with a light footprint through certain incentives.  The solar panels were made possible by tax credits plus access to low-interest energy loans.  Rural development funds were used in a portion of the barn’s construction.  But the success is due to the entrepreneurial vision of the fourth generation of Nebraskans who want to carry on the richness of their family tradition--in a smart way.

Through innovation, perseverance, and hard work—as well as necessary investment capital—new farm models will continue to emerge to advance Nebraska’s rich agricultural diversity. As I was leaving, Kelsey made me eat an ice cream bar.  That was pretty good too.