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Down on the farm with the robots and drones

Milking robots, according to one manufacturer, can run up to $2,500 per cow.

An AMS Galaxy automatic milker at work on a Pennsylvania farm.
An AMS Galaxy automatic milker at work on a Pennsylvania farm.Read moreAMS Galaxy

While Dave Bitler is counting sheep at night in his quaint Berks County farmhouse, laser-guided robots are milking his cows out in the barn.

These robots lure Bitler's herd, the bovine version of Pavlov's dogs, into state-of-the-milking stalls with a reward of high-nutrient pellets and a splash of molasses. While the cows chow, a robotic arm, similar to the kind that pops quarter panels onto frames in auto factories, swerves into position under the cow's udder, where lasers guide the gripper toward the teats to clean them. Once the cups are on, the milk flows through tubing into a tank.

When the cow's finished, the robotic arm is pressure-washed, then swings back into place for the next cow. This happens all day, every day with Bitler's 290 cows, because robots never sleep.

Bitler, 63, has been farming since he was 19. He might just take a vacation soon.

"I see great potential that it will make my life easier someday," Bitler said on a catwalk in his barn in Fleetwood.

Between milking robots, drones, and GPS-guided planters and pesticide machines, the digital age is making its way onto America's farms. Farm management software is now a $1.6 billion industry, even though broadband connectivity issues still plague large swaths of rural America, including Pennsylvania.

"All of our buildings are computer-controlled now. I program the temperature, the ventilation rates, the misting system," said Jim Brubaker, who raises and sells up to 18,000 hogs a year at his farm in Lewisburg, Union County. "There's very little hands-on management once it's up and running."

Bitler, 63, uses two "automatic milkers" built by AMS Galaxy that can handle 25 to 28 cows an hour in four stalls. Before the robots came along, Bitler used to milk 180 cows in just under four hours with the help of five people.

"Twice a day, 365 days a year," he said.

AMS Galaxy is just two miles away in Kutztown, where president Bradley Biehl, also a dairy farmer, has been spending little time lately.

"In the last couple of weeks alone, I've been in Oregon, Washington, and California," Biehl said by phone this week from Michigan.

Biehl, 38, said milking robots are more common and have been around for decades in Europe. His family went to the Netherlands to get theirs in 2011.  It was the first milking robot ever used in the United States, he said.

"In Europe, the farm's a little bit different. There's not a ton of labor around or people willing to milk cows. It's a lot of small family farms. It's a lot like Pennsylvania," he said.

Biehl's company has 20 installations in Pennsylvania. Asked how much the robots run, he said they average approximately $2,500 per cow.

In Bitler's barn, each cow has a transponder on its collar that is registered when it comes into the milking stall. The robots keep vital statistics on every cow that he can monitor from an office computer.

"We had about a week of training before we got started," he said.

Neither Bitler nor Biehl believes the milking robots hurt the agriculture workforce in Pennsylvania. Bitler said he might need one or two more people to help him if he hadn't purchased the robots.

"People don't always show up for work; the robots do," Biehl said.

The USDA Census of Agriculture saw a 6 percent decrease in the number of farms in Pennsylvania between 2007 and 2012. A prolonged stretch of low milk prices has forced many smaller dairy operations to call it quits in recent years, meaning more cows could be bought up by larger operations and the number of farms could dwindle ever further.

Mark O'Neill, of the Pennsylvania Farm Bureau, believes new technologies like milking robots are crucial to keeping farms afloat with minimal labor.

"New machinery over the past decade has significantly reduced the time it takes farmers to plant and harvest their crops," O'Neill said in an email.

GPS-guided spraying and planting, he said, have mitigated the environmental impact on local waterways — something Brubaker has seen firsthand with guided pesticide sprayers at HIS Buffalo Valley Farms.

"We have tremendously increased our efficiency and we're saving on herbicide. We're saving on fuel and tractor hours, and we are getting better yields," he said. "We produce everything cheaper and have less environmental footprint than we ever had."

While Brubaker likes to ski and bicycle, he said he's still actively involved in the farm while it transitions over to his sons. He still finds things to do, despite the new technology.

"A farmer never has free time," he said. "We just do something else."