Digital Dairy: Robotic Milk Production Takes Over |

Digital Dairy: Robotic Milk Production Takes Over

Jens Nielsen is the last dairy farmer on the North Sea island of Sylt. He works all the time, on Christmas Eve, on the day of his daughter’s wedding, even on days when funerals are held for people he once knew. On such occasions, he gets up from the banquet table before everyone else and heads for the stalls. He works 365 days a year.

 By Jonathan Stock and Takis Würger |

On one recent morning, he could be found working away in a small, damp room in his farm near the village of Morsum. The farm, with its view over the surrounding mud flats, has belonged to the Nielsen family for centuries. Nielsen was fiddling with a filling machine, as noisy as a jet engine, running around in front of it, stacking up milk cartons. Over the racket, Nielsen yelled: “Welcome to my Alcatraz!”

Smaller dairy farms in Germany are rapidly disappearing, and with EU quotas on milk production set to expire next year, the process is likely to accelerate. The only way to survive is to turn cows into machines and keep them away from the meadow. (Christian Burkert/ DER SPIEGEL)

Smaller dairy farms in Germany are rapidly disappearing, and with EU quotas on milk production set to expire next year, the process is likely to accelerate. The only way to survive is to turn cows into machines and keep them away from the meadow. (Christian Burkert/ DER SPIEGEL)

He is a powerful man with eyebrows that have been faded blond by the sun. In the last 33 years, he has taken a total of 28 days of vacation — he has kept close track. During his last holiday seven years ago, he remembers, he spent a lot of his time on the telephone because his wife was having problems with the milking machine. Nielson has sacrificed his life to milk.

His hands are covered with calluses and scars, traces of a life filled with work. His children have moved away and his wife also left him not long ago. But Nielsen says that despite it all, despite his heart problems, the hard work and the difficulties of his life, he is a happy person.

Whether he will remain so doesn’t only depend on his health, the weather and luck. More than anything, it depends on the European Union.

In 2015, the notorious quota system for milk is going to be abolished. For the last 30 years, the system regulated precisely how much milk each farmer was allowed to produce. But as of next year, dairy farming is to be liberalized, with every farmer free to turn out as much of the stuff as he or she would like. The consequences are not difficult to predict: Dairy farms will become bigger and more industrial and the price of milk, already lower than it should be, will fall further. Farmers like Nielsen might as well give up.

A Gigantic Machine

Things have already gotten more difficult. A large dairy on the mainland cancelled its contract with him a few years ago saying that Nielsen, with his relatively small herd of 36 cows, didn’t produce enough milk to justify the cost of transportation. Since then, he has only sold his product on Sylt. Sometimes, tourists drop by to sample his milk; they pat him on the back and tell him it tastes like it used to back in the old days. But it’s hardly enough to base a business on. A liter of milk costs around €1.20 ($1.64) on Sylt — many people think that is too much.

Nielsen and his one-man-show are part of the second largest foodstuff sector in Germany, trailing only meat production. Some 80,000 operations in the country produce 30 billion liters (7.9 billion gallons) of milk each year. The milk industry is like a gigantic machine, pumping its snow-white product onto the shelves of discount supermarkets. A one-liter carton often costs just 50 cents, hardly more than mineral water. The machine could never function as it does were it supplied only by farmers like Nielsen. But how does it work?

An answer to that question can be found in Bissendorf, a town in northwestern Germany. There, one finds Ulrich Westrup with his huge stall, subsidized by the European Union. Westrup’s face is ruddy and he has just returned from a study trip to Africa. “Ethiopia has potential,” he says. “Two rainy seasons, high plains and fertile soil. But,” he says after a pause, “they still use wooden plows pulled by oxen. No efficiency.”

Westrup is more a manager of milk. Sometimes he travels with flipcharts across the country and tells other dairy farmers how to optimize their stalls. Some of his drawings look similar to tactical charts for professional soccer teams.

Each of Westrup's cows wears a motion sensor, from which data is sent to a processing center in France. By analyzing how the cows move, the processing center can determine when cows are in heat.

Each of Westrup’s cows wears a motion sensor, from which data is sent to a processing center in France. By analyzing how the cows move, the processing center can determine when cows are in heat.

He opens his office, which looks like the control station of a power plant. Behind the window are some 300 cows, their mooing can be heard through the glass. They move around freely and each has its own stall where it can lie down. Two monitors show current data from the herd: feed calculations, fertility and milk production. Each of the animals has a motion sensor hanging from its neck which sends real-time data to a processing center in France where movement profiles are created and analyzed. Cows move differently when they are in heat. When one is identified, Westrup receives a text message from the processing center on his phone.

Westrup divides the lifecycle of his herd in two stages: “maturation years” and “production years.” Animal deaths are accounted for in his “restocking rate,” a phrase that describes how many animals must be replaced each year. In his herd, it is about 20 percent. Many other dairy farmers have a much higher restocking rate.

Regulating Production

An average dairy farm in the state of Lower Saxony, where Westrup’s farm is located, has 75 cows. Westrup manages a total of 600 and produces 6 million liters of milk each year. When it comes to production, his herd has continually improved in recent decades.

Across Germany, the average dairy cow gave 7,200 liters of milk last year. By comparison, the world record-holder, a cow in the US, produced 33,000 liters in 2010 — roughly enough to fill 235 bathtubs. Two-hundred years ago, a cow would produce around 1,000 liters of milk each year, or seven bathtubs full. Bovine development has been enormous.

Ulrich Westrup receives around 38 cents per liter of milk from the dairy he works with. Each cent is vital to an operation the size of his. Should prices drop by a single cent, Westrup’s income drops by €60,000, should they go up by a penny, his pockets are that much fuller. That is how Westrup does his calculations.

On the other end of the spectrum is the farm of Ulrich Westrup, located in the German state of Lower Saxony. He places a premium on efficience.

On the other end of the spectrum is the farm of Ulrich Westrup, located in the German state of Lower Saxony. He places a premium on efficience.

The challenge he faces is that of regulating his milk production machine such that it produces as much as possible without overheating. Westrup notes that there are certain areas where adjustments can be made. One of those is, of course, the machine that actually does the milking. Another is feed. Westrup nourishes his cows using the “total mixed ration” (TMR) system. The feed includes chopped grass and corn, coarse colza meal and sugar beet pulp, a leftover from sugar production.

His cows’ health is a further area to keep close tabs on. If they are stressed, they produce less milk and won’t become pregnant. A single cow could live for 15 to 20 years and have a total of around 10 calves. But in reality, the average dairy cow only has two to three young and produces milk for around two years. They are then around four-and-a-half years old, their milk production falls, they become infertile or they begin to get sick frequently. At that point, they are sent to slaughter.

Westrup, though, treats his cows with respect. He provides them with clean straw to lie on and keeps the stall walls open because cows like wind. “If I have the feeling that I didn’t monitor a pregnancy enough and the calf dies, it disturbs me emotionally,” he says.

He likes the feeling when calves lick his fingers, he says. Indeed, he adds, he loves his animals; he loves them as a carpenter does his hammer. But at the end of the day, it is their production that matters most.

A Thing of the Past

He could, of course, maintain a smaller herd and allow them to roam on an open field, but that would present even more problems, particularly economic ones. Most smaller dairy farmers in Germany are unable to cover their costs. Fully 85 percent of the grocery market is controlled by the supermarket chains of Edeka, Rewe, Aldi and those of the Schwarz Group (Kaufland and Lidl). They, in turn, demand low prices from the dairies. And they — only 10 dairies control almost the entire market — pass on the price pressures to the farmers.

Last year, some 3,300 dairy farmers gave up. The total number of farms falls by roughly half every 10 years. Only those farms that grow larger, produce more and become as efficient as possible, such as Westrup’s, have a hope of surviving. Free-roaming dairy herds are becoming a thing of the past; meadows full of black-and-white Holsteins a rarity. Instead, there is cheap milk.

Becoming outraged at the situation is hardly helpful. The foodstuffs sector has become so perfected that animals in the industry have become comparable to machines or raw materials in other sectors. Some 50 million male chicks are destroyed each year in Germany because they are unable to lay eggs. The canine teeth of piglets are filed down so as to prevent cannibalism in giant farms. Animals have become akin to diesel engines.

The radical increase in production per cow in recent decades was primarily the result of improvements in breeding, feeding, milking techniques and care. Those factors hold true for Nielsen on Sylt just as they do for Westrup in Bissendorf, just on a different scale. Both of them, however, are far removed from the extreme limits of dairy farming being tested in North America. The cow of the future in Europe will live in a digital world, milked by robots and fed by machines. In the Canadian province of Québec, some 5,000 kilometers (3,100 miles) away from Nielsen and Westrup, this future is already reality.

There, David Landry stands in his stall and watches as robots do his work for him. A round one, roughly as broad as a hula-hoop, moves between the paddocks shoving the hay closer to the cows. Another machine, the so-called Creeper, crawls through the stalls pushing manure out. In the middle of the stall is the milking robot.

Landry, a small man with thick hands and not much hair, grew up on the farm with his two brothers and remembers back when his father only had about a dozen cows and had to shovel out the manure himself. As a child, Landry milked cows by hand into a bucket. Today, he has 2,300 cows in six huge barns. In the morning, all he has to do is drive the feed to each barn — the robots take care of the rest. He also has to shove a couple of cows into the milking machine, though most go there on their own.

‘They Have Music, They Are Fine’

In the nighttime, Landry’s telephone sometimes rings with a call from one of the robots. The machine tells him its ID number and its problem. Landry then heads out, his iPhone strapped like a revolver to his belt, to fix it. Music plays in the barns. It’s soothing for the cows, Landry says.

Over time, he has taken up a few hobbies to fill the time his robots have freed up for him. He plays golf and goes skiing. In the winter, he says, he likes to fly down to Jamaica. He has also begun cooking, currently focusing mostly on soups, he says. Milk has provided him with a comfortable life, and it tastes just the same as it used to, even if robots do most of the work, he says. Furthermore, bacterial contamination is lower than it has ever been.

If you ask David Landry if his robot farm is profitable, he smiles and says “yes.” If you ask whether he thinks his cows have a dignified life, his smile freezes, but his eyes give him away. “They are quiet, they have music, they are doing fine,” he says.

Is it really possible to say that a milk cow is doing fine if they never feel a meadow under their hooves? It is difficult to believe, but the answer is not so easy. Independent studies have found that automatic milking machines are animal friendly and don’t harm their well-being.

For outsiders, the way Landry treats his animals may seem disagreeable. But really all he has done is thought through a system to its logical conclusion and optimized it — a system that is essentially no different in Canada than in Europe and Germany. Farmers are not maintaining petting zoos, they are keeping livestock. And when livestock are no longer productive, they are replaced.

People like Ulrich Westrup and David Landry are not to be blamed. At the most, one could condemn them for continuing — for having become money-grubbing agro-industrialists who go along with a system that exploits animals.

But that is something that only those might say who have never worked 17 hours in a day, milking cows and cleaning out stalls. Even with the machines, dairy farmers work hard so that we can drink cheap milk. Farmers continue to work more hours per year than any other occupation, despite not being well paid.

Even Less

In recent years, prices for feed, electricity, tractors, medicine, milking machines and bull semen have all risen. But for the 10-year period between 2002 and 2012, milk farmers received a relatively constant 30 cents per kilogram of milk. They have very little say in the 50-cent-per-liter price consumers pay in discount supermarkets. It is the brokers, the dairy managers and the grocery chain bosses sitting at their desks who determine how much a liter of milk should cost.

In the future, it will be even less. When the milk quota system expires next year, the industrialization of dairy farms will accelerate further. Large operations will become even bigger. Mid-sized farms will grow or disappear. Small farms only have a chance if they can find their niche in the organic or luxury markets.

Jens Nielsen, the dairy farmer on Sylt, drives his cows into the meadow himself, he milks them himself, he heats it up, packages it and cools it in his small refrigeration building. He delivers it as well. He works 365 days a year, a life that is much too difficult for our times. His back, he says, “is finished.” His doctor says he has cardiac arrhythmia.Would not a couple of robots be desirable to take care of the work cleanly and efficiently while he drank a cup of tea? Perhaps a creeper to clean the manure out of the stalls? A system that could make his farm profitable?

But perhaps his milk would taste different, no longer tangy from the surrounding salt water, no longer like it was. But it would be cheaper.

Translated from the German by Charles Hawley

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