Vermont dairies are replacing undocumented workers with robots

Milking the system.
Milking the system.
Image: Reuters/Nguyen Huy Kham
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Dairy farmers in Vermont are slowly replacing hired hands with automated robots—an expensive but reliable alternative to the troublesome humans that farmers employ.

Finding reliable farm employees can be a tough task, since they typically begin their demanding work days early in the morning and also during weekends. The vast majority of US farmworkers—78%—are foreign-born, according to the National Agricultural Workers Survey, and many are undocumented.

In Vermont, where some farm workers are unskilled, recovering drug addicts, farmers complain about broken farm equipment, safety concerns, and a lack of focus on the task at hand. So some farms have turned to investing heavily in robots to solve these problems.

Vermont’s Nordic Farms, which installed robots over a decade ago to milk its cows, has replaced five full-time employees on its 11-person farm. Today those robots assist in milking its 260-cow herd. Owner Clark Hinsdale told the publication that the question came down to, ”Can you get and keep employees, or do you have to get illegal Mexicans?” The obvious answer, he said, is “Almost everybody has illegal Mexicans. We have (robots).”

At roughly $200,000 a pop, the robots aren’t cheap. But they are legal, reliable, and don’t make mistakes. According to the Free Press, the milking machines work with lasers that scan the cows’ udders in a mechanical milking stall, and then use small arms to position and attach suction cups.

After the milking, rotating brushes reminiscent of a miniature car wash methodically clean the udder in an attempt to head off mastitis, the most feared infection in the dairy barn and one of the most common. Once the cow is milked and shunted off, the next cow sniffs her way into the stall and the process repeats itself. All without human intervention.

Agricultural robots are on the rise, used for tilling, sowing and harvesting grains. Autonomous tractors now spray pesticides, accompanied at times by whirring drones that work to detect patches of weeds. And robotics companies are working on machines with the precision required for picking fruits and vegetables.