There’s no denying dairying is a round-the-clock occupation with dedication, determination and the ability to fix anything with a bit of duct tape and baling twine as prerequisites. In times like these, the remaining dairymen in the Four States persevere because of a love of the business above all else.
In Fort Scott, Kansas, at the Foster Dairy, David Foster has dedicated his time and efforts to continuing his family tradition, with a little help from some cutting-edge dairy technology.
“I’m the fourth generation and I still work every day with my parents, Gary and Linda Foster,” Foster said. “We consider ourselves a progressive dairy and that's why we tried to adapt technologies that make our operation more efficient, make our time usage better and also allow us to do a better job of taking care of our animals.”
In 2016, the Foster family underwent the substantial time and financial commitment to update their dairy with a brand new barn and four shiny new artificially intelligent employees.
“We moved into the new barn after we installed the robots on Sept. 20, 2016, so that’s when we transitioned from our traditional parlor to the robotic milk barn,” Foster said. “We can monitor how often each cows comes in to milk and all of the gates are open so they have free choice to eat, drink, be milked, socialize or lay down at any given time.”
The robotic milking barn manages much more than just physically milking cows on their own time. Sensors in the system monitor everything from milk production per cow to rumen health, resulting in a 10 percent overall milk production increase across the new system.
Cows at the Foster Dairy are even equipped with a pedometer-style chip in their collars to monitor their daily activity and movement. The motion monitoring combined with the milk production data and temperature monitoring have changed the way the Fosters diagnose and treat their cattle.
“The robots also have a reading of conductivity for each quarter, so we can utilize that to analyze their overall udder health,” Foster said. “So we can use that as kind of a indicator of if she's getting mastitis or something and we can also choose to be given an overall health report that would include bodyweight over time and body temperature.”
Any outliers outside of normal ranges are flagged in the system and are added to an overall health report. If the animal has lost weight, rumination is down, activity has dropped, etc., it’s easy to quickly identify that animal as being in need of treatment without relying solely on a visual analysis. Foster said the robotic system helps take the guesswork out of identifying cows’ needs and problems.
On the management side of their robotics, learning to use all of the new tools took the Foster family some time to adjust and learn. For the cows, the transition from a regimented milking schedule to free choice was fairly smooth.
“It was much easier to transition the cows to this system than it was the people,” Foster said. “The cows took off and they started utilizing it within a week, but the people — I'd say honestly about a year and a half later — we finally started feeling more comfortable with protocols and routines.”
The adjustment period was well worth the effort for the Foster family. In addition to increased production and overall cattle health, the robots allowed more time flexibility for a family heavily tied to the dairy barn at all hours of the day and night.
“It was taking two people, 12 hours a day just to milk the cows,” Foster said. “Having the robots has allowed us to see other areas on the dairy that need attention and address those areas more quickly than we could before.”
Foster and his wife Addi have four small children, and the change in technology on the farm allows him to spend more time attending school events and witnessing milestones as opposed to losing sleep and dipping teats at the barn.
“My selling point for the robots back before we made the switch is that they would raise the whole ship,” Foster said. “They allow us to get different things done that otherwise would have fallen behind, like taking care of the younger stock or the crops.”
Overall, Foster said the robots have allowed the family to relax a bit more, get needed rest and work together more efficiently.
“We’re not walking around like zombies anymore because we haven’t gotten any sleep,” Foster said.
The change also allowed Foster to focus more time on his entrepreneurial projects — Cash Cow Enterprises and TerraKat LLC. Cash Cow Enterprises is a business Foster has managed for many years that oversees the disassembly and marketing of out-of-production poultry houses. TerraKat LLC is a new venture in which Foster imports and markets quality manure spreaders manufactured in Turkey.
Foster travels overseas to help with design and production of the spreaders and has set up a distribution chain for his company in the United States. Like all great ideas, TerraKat was born of necessity when Foster couldn’t find just the right spreader for his own dairy and went out in search of a better alternative. Today, his idea is a thriving side business that wouldn’t be possible without his tech-savvy new farm hands.