Every hour, a robotic feed pusher that resembles R2-D2 leaves its charging station and pushes feed closer to the cows at the Freund family’s dairy farm.
“The more a cow eats, the more milk the cow will produce,” says Amanda Freund, a third-generation operator at the farm in East Canaan. “If the cows are stimulated enough times throughout the day to grab a snack, it will be in our best interest.”
On some Connecticut farms, robots milk cows, fitness tracker-like collars track cow activity, solar panels power barns and methane digesters heat farmhouses.
Connecticut farmers find that equipment technologies help them feed more people in responsible, sustainable ways as farms improve efficiencies and maximize resources. Meanwhile, these gadgets can make cows happier and reduce the carbon footprint of agriculture.
“For our family,” Freund says, “technology and innovation is a very important part of keeping the farm in the family for the next generation.”
Lauren Kaplan at Hastings Farm in Suffield receives alerts on her cell phone if something goes awry with the robotic milker at their fourth-generation dairy farm.
Cows voluntarily enter the robotic milker at their whim, receive a treat and then go about their day roaming the barn and yard or approaching the grooming brush for a scratch. All the while, the high-tech collar around each cow’s neck collects and transmits data about cow activity, which could indicate a breeding cycle or health issue.
“It’s basically like a Fitbit for our cows,” says Kaplan, who farms with her sister and parents. “It shows me if Ingrid’s milk or activity has gone down. Sometimes you can even see an issue on the graph before you really see it in person.”
The addition of the robotic milker and microchip-embedded collars has increased their farm’s milk production per cow and added flexibility to their schedules. The family now has more time to run a retail store on the farm, selling farm-bottled milk, farm-raised beef, Greek-style yogurt and more.
“We were needing to upgrade our milking parlor,” Kaplan says. “The question was, are we going to upgrade a parlor and still be tied to these to two- to two-and-a-half-hour blocks of milking cows every single day, twice a day? Or, are we going to put in one of these robots, increase milk production and have more flexibility in our time? We went with the robot.”
From Robots to CowPots
At Freund’s Farm, five robots milk up to 300 cows an average of three times daily. Thermostats automatically control curtains and fans to change air flow or trigger misters. The family genomically tests young female calves, providing DNA records to optimize a healthy, productive herd. Robotic milkers record information on milk quantity and quality. Meanwhile, the dairy barn has about 700 solar panels on the roof to generate electricity needed to run both the dairy barn and their CowPots, another of the family’s businesses.
“We also have one of the longest- running methane digesters in the country,” Freund says. “We are generating biogas that we use to heat our house and water.”
In the farm’s CowPots factory, modern machines and robots form a dozen sizes of biodegradable plant pots that Freund’s father invented from their farm’s composted cow manure. The facility holds the capacity to make millions of CowPots per year, as well as the technology to manufacture custom products, such as golf tees and packaging corners.
“The reality is that our sustainability and survival as a farm business relies on efficiency,” Freund says. “If we are not progressive, alert and mindful of how to gain efficiencies and aren’t making improvements, I don’t know that we have a viable future.”