By Rene Thibault
In New England, Vermont is home to roughly 860 dairy farmers. It’s a $2.2 billion industry powered by the state’s 134,000 cows. The essence of the dairy farm hasn’t changed, but walking into the farmyard is a much different experience.
On a sunny morning in northern Vermont, young dairy farming brothers Dale and Dylan Nelson, and Dylan’s wife Meg, are busy at work with controller in hand. With motors whirling, a white-drone lifts into the air. The trio has dealt with a rainy, wet summer. The drone is used to monitor their corn fields through a mounted camera.
Dylan and Meg Nelson
Farmers across the country are adopting drone technology for multiple uses, from checking the health and growth of their crops, to monitoring cows grazing in a pasture. Drones allow farmers to get a birds-eye view of their land.
Drones aren’t the only technology you’ll find on the Nelson Boys Dairy Farm in Swanton. In 2015 the family installed a Green Mountain Power ‘Cow Power’ Methane Digester. The machine allows the farm to recycle cow manure into renewable energy. That electricity is sent back into the grid, powering local homes. The digester also turns that manure into a liquid byproduct used as fertilizer on their fields, and sterile, dried solids are used as bedding for their cows.
Cows are always the focus for the Nelsons, as well any other dairy farmer across the country. Many farmers house their animals in freestall barns, allowing cows to move about to eat, drink and rest whenever they wish. Climate controlled fans and curtains keep the barn cool in the summer and warm in the winter.
Meg and Dylan chuckle about their phones. Application alerts pop up about their cows’ health and milk production. The cows wear collars that provide all of the data on cow activity that is fed to the apps. The two joke they feel “so millennial” relying on their smartphones, but they know the devices are the central hub of the farm.
Technology for Milking
Happy cows mean more milk. This mindset fuels everything dairy farmers work to accomplish each day. For Kelly and Joan Sweet, of Sweet Dairy Farm in Fletcher, Vermont, a few special features keep their cows comfortable. Automatic back-scratchers activate whenever cows walk underneath. Their state-of-the-art barn also has a unique water recycling system which sends 4,000 gallons of recycled water collected on the farm, down the barn-aisles as another barn-cleaning tool.
Maybe most impressive, are the Sweet’s four robotic milking machines housed in the center of the barn. It’s technology that increases milk production by creating a comfortable, reliable experience for cows. Cows walk into the milking stalls and the machines digitally read a sensor found on a collar around the cows’ necks, which determines how much grain is dropped into a tray, and the machine goes to work. An automated arm swings out under the cow’s udders, cleans them, and a laser guides suction cups onto the teats.
Many dairy farms grow the feed for their cows. When you’ve got thousands of acres to get in the ground, grow, and harvest, you need the right tractor. GPS technology is no longer just for your car, it’s helping farmers accurately cover their fields. Many modern tractors are driving themselves through that GPS technology, leaving just the turning to the farmer. This allows the farmer to keep a closer eye on the seeder, or manure applicator they may be towing.
Called Precision Agriculture, this technology and these practices can eliminate human error. Crops are seeded in even rows and areas are not covered more than once. It means when farmers need to use manure fertilizer, pesticides or herbicides, the right amounts are applied, and in the right spots. This precision helps to ensure that nutrients stay on the field, and out of local waterways.
Preparing for Unpredictable Weather Patterns
Mother Nature is an ever-present force looming over farmers. It’s a factor they can’t control but always prepare for.
At Copper Hill Farm in Fairfax, Kurt Magnan, a fourth-generation dairy farmer, pulls out his phone and checks the data coming in from his remote weather station. Located north of the barn, the weather station features wind and rain gauges, and other sensors that record temperature, and humidity. This information is sent to his smartphone. It allows Magnan to make informed decisions about his work. The data helps him decide what, and how much manure he should apply to his fields. Another example of how dairy farmers utilize technology to protect the lands they use and love.
Vermont and New England dairy farmers don’t take days off, they never stop caring for their animals and their lands. Even though their tools have drastically changes, dairy farmers continue to work effectively and efficiently to produce healthy foods. With our population slated to reach 9.7 billion by 2050, we’ll need all of our farmers, and their technology.
–Rene Thibault is a public relations and communications specialist for the New England Dairy and Food Council.