For years, a great number of us have relied on immigrant labor to milk cows and handle other farm tasks because most locals are unwilling to apply for farm jobs. With improving economic conditions in Mexico, stronger border security stateside and uncertain immigration policy nationwide, that now dwindling stream of foreign workers has caused many of us to look more closely at technology to solve our labor woes.

Robots have been milking cows on some pioneering dairy farms for 15 years already. These systems have high, up-front cost. Yet, some dairy producers have decided to "prepay their labor" to grow their businesses. Robots once were thought of as an option for small to mid-size dairies. Now a growing number of operations milk upwards of 1,000 cows with robots in order to adapt to changing labor supplies.

Building upon this success, other farmers gained confidence to feed calves with robotic systems. Just like automated milking systems, electronic calf feeding requires a revamped approach to animal care but definitely saves on labor.

Even with these breakthroughs, many dairy producers still have sat on the sidelines. In their eyes, robotic milking systems for rotary or parallel parlors would best suit their business model. Unfortunately, these systems remain largely in the developmental phase. However, that hasn't stopped labor-strapped farmers from talking about future possibilities.

Since the invention of electricity and then the milking machine, dairy producers have looked for better ways to not only milk cows, but secure reliable labor and reduce labor costs. That trend will continue as our collective concerns about immigration and simply finding good people who can work with cattle only mount. And with Chinese and Indian immigrants now surpassing those from Mexico, according to the Census Bureau, we fear the handwriting is on the wall regarding the future of immigrant farm labor.

This article appears on page 244 of the April 10, 2016 issue of Hoard's Dairyman.

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