Dairy farmers want state money for robots

By: - February 22, 2022 5:30 pm

There are about 850 dairy farms in Iowa, ranging in size from 25 to 10,000 cows. (Photo courtesy of Iowa State Dairy Association)

Many dairy farmers in Iowa need to upgrade their equipment to ensure future generations won’t turn away from the labor-intensive industry, according to the Iowa State Dairy Association.

The association is pushing legislation to create a state grant or forgivable-loan program to help dairy farmers automate various aspects of their unrelenting work. The proposed bills — House File 2433 and Senate File 2290 — would also seek to create educational programs that show farmers how to process their milk into cheese, ice cream, yogurt and other products.

There are about 850 dairy farms in Iowa, ranging in size from 25 to 10,000 cows. A typical dairy in the state milks about 250 cows.

“The next generation, when we’re looking at bringing them into the operation, having that quality of life — that ability to go to your kids’ events, be there for your daughter’s birth — that can all be made possible through robotics,” Mitch Schulte, executive director of the dairy association, told lawmakers last week.

Dairy cattle are often milked at least twice a day, every day of the year. The ability for many of the farmers to be away from their cattle is largely dependent on other workers being available to help. Even supper can take a backseat to the dairy.

“All through my youth, we never had supper at 6 o’clock at night. It was usually later, between 8 and 9 (o’clock),” said John Maxwell, who operates Cinnamon Ridge Farms northwest of Davenport. “After school, it was: you get home, you do chores, you help with the dairy, eat supper, do homework and go to bed. I played very little sports.”

Maxwell is a fifth-generation farmer who has run the gamut of dairy technology. He knows from his childhood what it’s like to milk a cow by hand into a bucket. Now he has robotic equipment to do it.

In 2012, he built a cutting-edge dairy facility with machines that automated much of the milking, feeding and manure cleanup. There’s even a device to scratch the animals’ backs.

Before that facility, his farm was milking about 40 cows at any given time with a crew of three or four people. Now Maxwell milks about 220 cows with a similarly sized crew, although he said it’s possible for one person to run the operation.

His eldest daughter maintains the robots. Without the automation, it might have been difficult to convince her to stay with the dairy after high school.

“It’s a big deal if we want to keep the young or the next generation in Iowa,” Maxwell said. “It’s also a big deal if we don’t want to be an industry or a nation where three or four or five big conglomerations own everything.”

He sells most of his milk to Brewster Cheese in Illinois, which turns it into Swiss cheese. A small percentage of his milk is processed into cheese on-site: flavored cheese curds, blocks of cheddar, smoked Gouda.

Basically, Maxwell’s operation is a prime example of what the new legislation wants to copy.

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Schulte said he hopes the state will offer up to $100,000 per dairy farm to help pay for the new technology, in the form of a forgivable loan or grant that would be matched with an equal amount of money from another funding source. That won’t cover the total cost of the upgrades, but it would help farmers get loans or other funding to pay the rest. The bills would also create a task force to help develop the educational programs, which could be offered by community colleges or the state’s regent universities.

“We need to teach our farmers how to make a product they can sell to the local community,” Schulte said.

The task force would identify those products that are most likely to succeed and decide whether farmers can be taught to make them with a few weeks of training or a full-fledged degree.

The House and Senate bills gained approval in each chamber’s agriculture committees last week. It’s unclear when they might be considered by the full chambers.

The bills have the support of several agricultural groups, including the dairy association and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, along with Sierra Club’s Iowa Chapter.

“We’re extremely optimistic,” Schulte said of the bills’ futures. “We know there’s support for locally produced products and help for dairy farmers out there.”

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to clarify that the dairy association hopes the proposed program would provide up to $100,000 per farm in grants or loans, to be matched with other funding sources, to offset part of the cost of technology upgrades.

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Jared Strong
Jared Strong

Senior reporter Jared Strong has written about Iowans and the important issues that affect them for more than 15 years, previously for the Carroll Times Herald and the Des Moines Register. His investigative work exposing police misconduct has notched several state and national awards. He is a longtime trustee of the Iowa Freedom of Information Council, which fights for open records and open government. He is a lifelong Iowan and has lived mostly in rural western parts of the state.

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