From Robots to Customers: Exploring New Opportunities for Dairy Farmers

Cows at the Lake Wheeler dairy farm.

Assistant Professor Alejandro Gutierrez-Li

Assistant Professor Alejandro Gutierrez-Li and his collaborators Cesar EscalanteLuis Peña-LevanoShaheer BurneyGrace Melo and James Salfer recently won a competitive $250,000 grant from the Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program.

Their three-year project will study the costs and benefits of implementing automatic milking systems (AMS) and will assess whether robotic milking leads to long-term improvements in farm profitability, sustainable practices and financial resilience, at a time when the dairy industry (worth billions of dollars nationwide) is struggling to obtain workers.

“The dairy and animal sectors are facing great challenges associated with pandemic disruptions, increases in input costs and, most importantly, a diminishing availability of workers,” Gutierrez-Li said. “Our project will investigate whether technology adoption allows the reallocation of workers towards more productive tasks, which could lead to efficiency gains thanks to a better use of resources. Automatic milking systems mechanize the production process by using robotic boxes that can milk many cows per day.”

The trend of rising costs for dairy farmers has continued over the past several years. Labor represents about 20%-30% of total production costs, making mechanized milking even more appealing. While labor shortages are widespread in agriculture (even before the pandemic), farmers of labor-intensive crops have survived thanks to their growing reliance on the H-2A visa system, which allows them to bring foreign agricultural workers to the US. However, this option is not ideal for livestock and dairy farmers.

“Unfortunately, the program is seasonal by design and does not allow farmworkers to remain in the country for the whole year, making it less suitable for sectors like dairy that require labor all year round,” Gutierrez-Li said.

Located across five states, Gutierrez-Li and his collaborators will employ various analytical techniques to further research this potential solution to rising dairy production costs. In addition to analyzing the conditions under which automatic milking systems are economically viable, the study will identify strategies for successful implementation on farms of different sizes, management practices, and labor reliance. Likewise, the researchers will collaborate closely with producers and other stakeholders, as their project has a strong extension and outreach component.

Gutierrez-Li, who was honored earlier this year as a 2022 Impact Scholar, looks forward to the start of the project this fall.

“I came to NC State to build a new research and extension program on agricultural labor,” he said. “In the short time since I arrived, I have witnessed the strong demand from stakeholders for work addressing labor challenges in agriculture. While my projects focus mostly on North Carolina, my program’s reach has quickly expanded to other states in the Southeast, and now, with this collaboration, to the Midwest and beyond, as labor shortages are a major problem that needs to be addressed to guarantee the food security of the nation.”

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