Pa. dairyman goes high tech with robotic milkers and digesters

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By DARRIN YOUKER
Contributing Writer

BETHEL, Pa. — Ralph Moyer is uncertain what the future may hold for his Pennsylvania dairy farm. His grown children are pursuing careers elsewhere, and he’s not sure if any will carry on the family farm.

And faced with an aging milk house and worn-out equipment, Moyer knew he either had to revamp, or get out of the business.

Moyer, who owns the 450-acre Mor-Dale farms in Bethel, Berks County, with his wife Crystal, decided to forge ahead.

With that decision, Moyer sought to develop one of the most advanced dairy facilities in the state. With four robotic milking machines, a methane digester, and automated feeding and manure scraper, Moyer has built an operation that takes away much of the hands-on labor of dairy farming.

“Both of our facilities were worn out,” Moyer said. “We needed to go in a new direction.”

‘Freestyle milking.’ Cows inside Moyer’s dairy barn milk themselves. Instead of the normal routine of milking three times a day, Moyer’s cattle are free to go to a milking stall any time they chose.

Each cow wears a transponder on its neck. When a cow enters the milker, a computer system reads the collected, including its weight, milk production, even how much it’s chewed. Grain is dispensed, and cows eat while the machine sanitizes the udders.

Lasers then guide each milking cup to the teat. The process takes about 10 minutes.

Used 23/7. When the barn was completed in January, Moyer had to teach the cows to use the unit. Now, the herd is adjusted to the routine, he said.

“What we’ve found is that it’s used about 23 hours a day,” he said. “It’s completely occupied, either milking or washing.”

Different focus. Moyers work is now focused on managing the farm, and the health of the herd, rather than the daily chores of milking. Data collected by the robotic milking system allows Moyer to spot trends in his animal’s health.

A cow that is not walking much, or chewing too little, can suggest a problem, he said. Switching over to an automated system meant Moyer would not have that daily interaction with his animals.

Now, Moyer reviews reports to pinpoint problems in specific animals.

“It is much more hands off. I used to try to milk at least once a day. This way it is harder to know your cows more personally. You rely more on computer reports,” he said.

“It is just a change. You just have to adapt to it.”

Adding robotic milkers, each at a cost of $200,000, has allowed Moyer to expand his herd from 100 cows to 250, without the need for additional staff.

Automated ‘feed pusher’. At the same time, the barn has a number of labor-saving devices. Moyer, or one of his employees, lays down a fresh layer of feed each morning for the cows. Then, eight times a day, a round-bodied robot slowly passes down the length of the barn, pushing feed toward the cows.

Scrapers inside the barn push manure into troughs, which are then fed by gravity into a holding tank for the methane digester. Manure is pumped from the holding tank into the digester, which uses the methane to produce electricity.

Once fully operational, the digester will power much of Moyer’s operation, he said.

During the digesting process, solid and liquid material is separated. The solids are turned into a compost-like material, which Moyer uses as bedding for his animals. The liquid becomes a high-quality fertilizer, which Moyer applies to his field, but without the unpleasant odors normally associated with manure.

Methane, which produces the smell, becomes an energy source inside the digester, he said.

“We look at this as community friendly, and should provide some long-term savings,” Moyer said.

Because Moyer operates a smaller-scale dairy, the digester had to be resized to accommodate less volume. Also, most of the equipment is located outside the tank, a new design feature that will make routine maintenance much more efficient, he said.

Protecting the Bay. Moyer, whose farm is located In the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, was able to utilize grants through the Chesapeake Bay Foundation for the project. That made the digester much more affordable, he said.

Moyer believes his farm is more appealing to a new crop of farmers.

“It’s labor efficient, more exciting and more interesting to younger generation,” he said.

“If you want to hire someone coming out of an agriculture college, I think you have a better chance of dawning them here because it is more management-oriented than labor intensive.”

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