“Do you milk by hand?” That is the typical question I hear when I tell people Roger and I have a dairy farm. I anticipate this question and am still surprised.
What amazes me is the total sincerity of people as they ask this question. People in Michigan live in the midst of agricultural communities and yet they are oblivious to how we farm.
My response is to laugh gently, then say, “No, we milk with robots!” Amazement and disbelief cross their faces, and we begin a conversation about dairy technology.
We milk cows with a LELY Astronaut 3 robot, and we named it after Johann Leonhard Weiss, who purchased our farm in 1853 from the U.S. government for $1.25 an acre. According to the 1880 agricultural census, Johann milked six cows – the milk from which his family made into 500 pounds of butter to sell in 1879.
Today, we milk 50 cows. We produced 1.3 million pounds of milk last year with our modern “Johann” robotic milker.
Before meeting my husband, Roger, I earned my master’s degree in American history and education. While I never had my own classroom, I’ve educated tens of thousands of children and adults about Michigan agriculture in the last 25 years.
How has technology changed the nature of dairying at Weiss Centennial Farm? Johann, his son Martin and third-generation farm owner Balthas milked cows by hand their whole life.
In 1930, the farm was electrified. That made it possible for Balthas (Johann’s grandson and my husband’s grandpa) to simplify farm tasks. However, it wasn’t until after World War II that Balthas purchased a Surge conveyor system and two milking buckets.
He and his son, Elmer (Roger’s dad), used the Surge conveyor system for almost 40 years and increased the size of the dairy herd from 10 to 25 milk cows by the late 1980s.
In 1987, when I married Roger, we milked with the same buckets Balthas and Elmer used in 1947. I remembered milking with a pipeline system as a small child (my dad quit dairy farming to focus on vegetables when I was 12), so Roger and I purchased a used Surge pipeline and installed it in the barn in 1989.
Our daughter, Margie, loved cows since she first laid eyes on them. She attended Michigan State University’s Institute of Agricultural Technology and learned about robotic dairy technology.
Roger, Margie and I decided to upgrade our dairy equipment in 2010. Getting past the price tag was the hard part – embracing the technology is pure pleasure!
Today we are on the leading edge of dairy technology, albeit with a very small herd of 50 dairy cows. Roger is as good an educator as I am, although his specialty is talking to fellow dairy farmers.
He explains that we went from having almost no data on our herd, to having complete, daily updated biographies of each cow and reams of data. Since we installed robotic “Johann” on our farm, five other local farms have done the same.
Robot technology frees our now-adult children to pursue other agricultural employment while still enjoying life on a small family farm. Margie has a hoof trimming business; she works off the farm two or three days each week.
Our son, Scott, has always been good with farm equipment. He is a certified LELY service technician. Our youngest daughter, Lydia, plans to become a baking and pastry chef; we know she will use plenty of delicious dairy in her recipes.
Most importantly, robotic technology allows us to remain a productive dairy farm. That’s priceless for us – knowing Margie and/or Scott will have the opportunity to be the sixth generation to take stewardship of Weiss Farm and raise a family here too. PD