It was 1970 when Futurist Alvin Toffler coined the term “future shock.”
In essence, the term referred to the idea that certain individuals (or even whole societies) can suffer from virtual paralysis when faced with so many changes in science or technology in such a short time.
Toffler first popularized the term “information overload,” a concept to which many older Americans – I’m getting there myself – can often relate as they desperately try to keep up (or in some cases give up) on state-of-the-art technological advances that are being realized as fast as intelligent minds, smarter than most of us, can conceive of them.
After visiting the grand opening of a new $1.7 million robotic milking parlor at Iowa’s Dairy Center last Thursday, I reflected on the experience. And the concept of robots milking cows.
I thought about my own experience on my grandpa’s dairy farm, beginning 40-plus years ago. My Grandpa Melden had 17 stanchions, milking a herd of 23 Holsteins, three at a time.
Like all farmers in the days before pipelines, he would hang the heavy Surge bucket milkers on the surcingles, again and again -- wearing out his knees and his back over time as he bent to retrieve the heavy containers, full to the brim, before transferring the milk into a stainless steel bucket and lifting it high into the air in order to pour it into the bulk tank.
When I do the math, it is mind-boggling. Figure 23 cows, twice a day, 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year for 55 years. (Yes, my mother remembers a conversation with him at 67, where he said he’d been milking since he was 12.) So, when you multiply that out, with the exception of some short vacations -- which were few and far between -- my grandfather performed that ritual approximately 920,920 times.
Even more baffling is the fact that during each milking, the average Holstein gives about five gallons of milk weighing 8.6 pounds a gallon. Add the weight of the milk (approximately 43 pounds) to the weight of the Surge bucket milker (approximately 13 pounds) and you get a total weight of 56 pounds. Over 55 years, that’s total weight lifted of 51,571,520 pounds. That’s more than 51 million. With an M. Think about it. No wonder his knees were shot.
Fast forward to March 2014. As I toured the new addition at Iowa’s Dairy Center and learned more about the Northeast Iowa Dairy Foundation and the dozens of partners that had a hand in putting together the state-of-the-art facility, I was in awe.
I thought of the dairy pioneers in attendance – Maynard Lang and G. Joe Lyon – and how they have seen the dairy industry transform. Contemporaries of my grandfather, they have to be amazed at how the process has changed throughout their lifetimes.
Today, each of the cows in a robotic milking herd chooses when to be milked, up to six times a day. If something goes wrong, the system will alert you, via your technology of choice, of the problem. Leaving the farm for extended periods of time is no longer a pipe dream, but a reality.
I remember 27 years ago when I first encountered early milking parlor technology at the University of Illinois – Champaign/Urbana (Go Fighting Illini!). My friend, Nancy, a pre-vet student, put out a call to all of us living at the Wesleyan Cooperative for Gals that the college dairy barn was hiring.
Missing my rural home, I gladly signed on for the morning shift, which started at 4 a.m. I was up before dawn each morning, milking Holsteins, Jerseys, Brown Swiss, Guernseys and Ayrshires, in the college’s two modern dairy parlors, before heading to class for the day. Compared to helping Grandpa, it seemed like high-tech heaven. And on each trip back home, I would share with him my bovine adventures at college.
On Thursday, I discussed my college milking experience with Gary Kregel, Northeast Iowa Dairy Foundation president. We lamented the fact the University of Illinois had discontinued the program several years ago.
Kregel said the biggest obstacle all university farms face is sustainable funding, and the reason the NICC program continues to blossom is the Foundation, which supports the Dairy Center’s activities through private donations. Dairy science students have the option of obtaining a two-year associate of science degree or transferring to a four-year university, such as Iowa State University, to complete their education.
From there, the sky is the limit. Many find themselves securing management positions on modern dairies, working with AI (artificial insemination) firms or starting their own operations. Many use the knowledge they’ve learned to return to their family farm and help upgrade and modernize it.
As I walked by the robotic milking viewing station at the Center, I observed NICC President Liang Chee Wee pointing the robotic units out to someone.
“It’s where your milk comes from,” he said.
It certainly is. And as long as the world demands milk on the table, the students attending NICC’s dairy science program today are the people who are going to be putting it there for generations to come.
Robots milking cows … I have to wonder what Grandpa would say to that.