Phoebe Bitler’s cows meander over to the milking parlor when they feel the need to empty their milk.
When not milking, they enjoy laying around a state-of-the-art barn on freshly made bedding or wandering over to the brushing station to have their backs or heads brushed. That’s when they aren’t playing.
Robotic machines do the work, the cows simply enjoy.
The Bitlers, like a lot of dairy farmers across the state, are using technology to help run the farm and remain competitive in an industry that has faced a lot of struggles.
Dairy is big business in Pennsylvania, said Shannon Powers, press secretary for the state Department of Agriculture. In fact, the state ranks 7th in the nation for milk production.
But the picture isn’t all rosy. “We have lost a lot of dairy farms, but unlike other parts of the country where you find big agricultural farms, we have a different situation,” she said. Pennsylvania dairy farms tend to be smaller, family run organizations.
David R. Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association, said many of the family farms that are thriving have grown in the number of cows they keep. Technology, he said, has made it possible for them to stay in business as many rely on family to get the work done.
“There are jobs like everyone is seeing,” he said. “The technology is very expensive, but it does solve some of the labor shortages.”
Technology includes robotic milking, nutritional research and computerized monitoring of each cow to see how much milk it produces, what it eats and if there are any health issues.
Bitler said technology has definitely helped keep the farm afloat. The cows learn to go to the robots. “They get into a box and the robot will wash and sanitize their teets and then attach to them. When they are done milking, the robot sanitizes them again so there are no problems,” she said. “The robot then gives the cow a pellet treat which is an energy booster.”
Computers then relay the information to the Bitlers. “If a cow is not going to the robot to be milked, we can go remind them,” she said.
Pennsylvania’s dairy industry supports 53,300 jobs and contributes $14.1 billion to the commonwealth’s economy annually, according to the Department of Agriculture. Dairy innovation is fueling STEM careers, creating opportunities in food science, engineering, business and animal science.
“To ensure agriculture’s prosperity for food to remain available, accessible and affordable, we need to grow a new generation of agriculturalists,” said Russell Redding, secretary of agriculture, during the All-American Dairy Show at the state Farm Show Complex in September.
Pennsylvania faces an agricultural workforce shortage, that at one point estimated a deficit of 75,000 workers as farmers retire and new technology-based positions become available. In recognition of workforce needs, the Wolf Administration created a 15-member Commission for Agriculture Excellence and proceeded to invest heavily in the future of the industry through Pennsylvania Farm Bill Programs such as the Ag & Youth Grant Program, Farm to School Program and Farm Vitality Grant Program.
“As we think about the future of agriculture and our dairy industry here in Pennsylvania, addressing our workforce challenges remains a top concern and prioritized item for us,” said Stephon Fitzpatrick, Commission for Agriculture Education Excellence executive director. “With fewer students and people choosing farming as a career, the incorporation of technology and new innovations in our dairy industry could prove an asset in not only sparking interest to pursue careers in agriculture but also, economic vitality.”
David R. Smith, executive director of the Pennsylvania Dairymen’s Association, said, “We are in a fluid milk market. We are within a 3–4-hour drive of 50% of the population.”
That, he said, allows farmers to sell fresh milk in gallon or half-gallon containers, unlike other parts of the country where milk needs to be processed into other products or powdered for transportation.
Gov. Tom Wolf in 2019 got approval for more than $8 million in grants and low-interest loans to support Pennsylvania’s farms, including $5 million in grants awarded through the new Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program.
“We created the Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program with one purpose: to help Pennsylvania’s dairy farmers,” Wolf said. “The grants approved are just the beginning of our mission to help modernize and support our dairy industry in a challenging, rapidly-changing business environment.”
The Pennsylvania Dairy Investment Program provides grants to eligible applicants for researching new technologies, products and best practices; marketing to new domestic and international markets and exploring new business opportunities to diversify their operation and revenue streams; transitioning to organic production methods; and incorporating or expanding value-added dairy production, such as cheese and yogurt products.
Powers said the farms that are thriving are taking advantage of the grants and low-interest loans. “It takes forward thinking.”
Jenny Gehringer, of Four Springs Farms in Kutztown, said while her farm runs on family labor, they have moved to automated milk meters which track how much milk each cow produces. The information is sent to their computers.
She and her husband Cyrus are both Penn State Agricultural Management and Animal Sciences graduates.
“Jenny knows which of our cows produces the most so she breeds them for milk production,” Cyrus Gehringer said. “We focus on cow comfort and health.”
“We’ve made a lot of strides over the past six years,” Jenny Gehringer said. “We are now at 5,000 pounds of milk per cow per year – a 20% increase since we started.”
Bitler, whose farm utilizes a barn equipped with high ceilings and fans and sides that open and close to keep the cows comfortable, said manure is automatically scraped out of the barn regularly.
The manure is then treated and used for fertilizing the fields and composted for bedding. She uses wood shavings from a furniture store which is added to the compost “to make great bedding.”
“We wanted to make sure we are doing the best job we can for our animals,” she said.
The Bitler’s researched new technology online and when they found things of interest, they visited farms to see what they thought would work for them.
Utilizing a grant from the Center for Dairy Excellence, the Bitler’s worked with a transformation team which included a banker, a builder, industry experts, accountants and nutritionists. “They were people looking out for the good of the dairy. They have eyes and ears we don’t,” she said.
The farm currently has 240 cows in production and 40 that “are on vacation.” In other words, they are pregnant.
The young stock is ready to reproduce at 22 months. After giving birth, they are ready to milk. All the breeding is done on the farm.
“Currently, it costs us more to raise replacement cows than it would be to buy mature ones, but we like our breeding stock so we choose to use our own,” she said.