Robotic Milkers and an Automated Greenhouse: Inside a High-Tech Small Farm

BULGER, Pa. — About 150 Jersey cows within the rolling terrain at Rivendale Farms in Bulger, some 25 miles west of Pittsburgh, put on Fitbit-like collars that monitor their motion, consuming and rumination patterns. They are milked not by people however by robotic machines.

A close-by greenhouse, about a quarter-acre in dimension and full of salad-bowl crops like kale, arugula and child carrots, is automated. The temperature, humidity and daylight are managed by sensors and retractable metallic screens. And quickly, small robots could roam the farm’s eight acres of vegetable crops open air to identify illness and pluck weeds.

Farming in America is more and more a high-tech endeavor. Combines guided by GPS, drones, satellite tv for pc imagery, soil sensors and supercomputers all assist the nation’s meals manufacturing. Yet that know-how is especially tailor-made for giant industrial farms, the place fields stretch so far as the attention can see.

Rivendale Farms, which has simply accomplished its first 12 months of full operations, provides a glimpse of know-how coming accessible for smaller farms.

Technology for large farms is all about rising yields and slicing prices. For smaller farms, too, effectivity is paramount. But know-how may also eradicate a lot of tedious, routine labor — a way of life payoff that may assist persuade a youthful technology to remain placed on household farms fairly than promote out.

Smaller farms sometimes increase specialty crops on restricted acreage. Specialty farming requires a scaled-down strategy, just like the small robots being developed for Rivendale by scientists at close by Carnegie Mellon University and the increasing array of kit from the “slow tools” motion, a group of farmers and engineers designing reasonably priced instruments for small farms.

The objective at Rivendale, stated Thomas Tull, the farm’s proprietor, is to create a “boutique, cutting-edge farm, enabled by technology, that produces great food.”

Rivendale can afford its mixture of cutting-edge business know-how and science experiments as a result of Mr. Tull is a billionaire serial entrepreneur, investor in tech-related ventures and former movie producer. He can also be on the board of Carnegie Mellon. He has spent a number of million on Rivendale thus far. But the plan, Mr. Tull stated, is for the farm to change into self-sustaining by 2020.

So Rivendale can attempt extra issues directly than others can. But its efforts, specialists say, are a part of a broader development amongst small farmers looking for to lift wholesome meals and livestock utilizing much less fossil gas, fertilizer and processed feed.

Walk into the dairy barn at Rivendale and there are no people — only cows, an automated feed system and three robotic milking machines.

The Rivendale cows are milked four times a day on average, when they feel ready, compared with the traditional twice-a-day regimen when humans manage the milking. And its Jersey cows produce 15 percent more milk than the average for the breed, with a higher protein and butterfat content, said Christine Grady, general manager of Rivendale.

“They eat when they want, lie down when they want and feed when they want,” Ms. Grady said. “And a happier cow produces more milk and better milk.”

It takes a week or two for the cows to get accustomed to the robotic milkers and the built-in incentives, said Rodney Rankin, who leads the dairy operations. The milking stations have vanilla-flavored feed pellets, but a cow cannot just come back repeatedly for the treats. Sensors and a scale — a cow’s weight can vary by up to 75 pounds in a day — prevent cows without reasonably full udders from getting in.

Once the cow is in the stall, the teats and udder are washed with little rotary brushes. Lasers scan and guide the milk suction devices onto each of the four teats. Milking time is six minutes on average. At the end, the cow is sprayed with iodine and steam to clean its udder.

Robotic milkers have been available for years. But the technology has steadily improved, requiring far less human assistance than a few years ago.

The machines cost about $200,000 each. Without them, and an automated feeding system, the milking barn at Rivendale would require five workers instead of being mainly overseen by one, Ms. Grady said.

The Rivendale robotic milking machines are made by Lely, a Dutch company and a leader in the industry. In some European countries, up to 30 percent of the cows are milked by machine, while in the United States the share is about 2 percent, estimates Mathew Haan, a dairy technology expert at Pennsylvania State University’s agriculture extension program.

The gap, Mr. Haan said, is largely explained by more generous programs that support milk prices as well as higher labor costs than in America. These two factors have encouraged investment in automation in Europe.

In the United States, even large-herd producers with thousands of cows in California, which have been labor-intensive operations, are beginning to try robotic milking machines. That is driven partly by changing immigration policies that may create a shortage of farm workers. But to date, the main market has been smaller operations with 120 to 240 milking cows, said Steve Fried, Lely’s North American sales manager.

George Kantor, a senior systems scientist at Carnegie Mellon’s robotics institute, is leading the effort at Rivendale to develop “scouting robots” to identify disease and weeds in the vegetable field, and then send smartphone alerts if there is a problem.

His team did field work and collected data in the fall, then shifted to a university lab for the winter. Computer vision and machine learning, Mr. Kantor said, will be deployed to distinguish healthy plants from diseased ones and weeds.

A next step would be to get rid of weeds. Organic farming avoids pesticides. And digging up or pulling weeds, Mr. Kantor said, would require hand-like grasping and holding, a more daunting robotic task, where progress has been slower.

Some technology at Rivendale is more neat hack than high tech. Susanna Meyer, the head of crop production, is fond of a greens cutter whose engine is a battery-powered electric drill, and a small electric tiller called the Tillie — one of the slow-tools implements.

Michael McGowen, a former staff scientist at Los Alamos National Laboratory, bought a farm in Oregon a decade ago, started growing vegetables and found there were no affordable tools for small farms. So he designed his own including the Tillie, whose basic model sells for $495, and set up a business, Carts and Tools, in Corvallis, Ore.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a leading distributor of the small-scale farming tools, has seen that business increase fivefold over the last 10 years, said Adam Lemieux, the company’s product manager for tools and supplies.

To most longtime farmers, A.I. stands for artificial insemination, not digital wizardry. But a new generation of family farmers is welcoming robotic assistants and smartphone apps.

“They have a different mind-set, and they are all trying to figure out a path ahead for their family farms and where technology fits in,” said Jeff Ainslie, a vice president of Red Barn Consulting, which advises family farmers.

Scott Flory is one of them. After earning his degree in dairy science from Virginia Tech, Mr. Flory returned to his family farm in Dublin, Va., in 2009, with ideas for modernizing its operations.

Since then, the farm has installed four of the Lely robotic milkers, equipped the cows with activity trackers and doubled the number of its milking cows to 240, without adding workers. The farm remains almost entirely a family affair, run by him, his wife, Laura, and his parents, Dale and Janet.

“I wouldn’t be in the dairy business today without this stuff,” said Mr. Flory, who is 30.

At Rivendale, Mr. Tull, the owner, has no doubt that advancing technology will transform smaller farms someday.

But after closely observing the operations at Rivendale this past year, he said, “You come away with a tremendous respect for farmers, and that the work is hard and complex. The key is getting the right mix of art and science.”

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