A milk cow walks up to a robot.
That’s not the beginning of a bad joke, but a way of producing milk that’s common in Europe and in some large-production U.S. states and is slowly catching on in Virginia.
The trend has spread to Pulaski County, where Hillside Farm converted its operation a year ago from conventional to robotic, making it one of fewer than a dozen such farms in the commonwealth. Since then, the farm has doubled its herd size from 110 milk cows to about 220 without increasing its workforce, co-owner Laura Flory said.
The family hopes the change will help sustain the historic farm for another generation, as Laura Flory, 26, and her husband, Scott, 28, both dairy science graduates of Virginia Tech, say they plan to make their living farming the land that has been in Scott Flory’s family for 220 years.
Last year, the couple dismantled their conventional milking parlor and built a new robotic dairy, and a new partnership with their son Scott and daughter-in-law Laura. They, along with a few other farms, are on the cutting edge of Virginia’s dairy industry.
The elders say they don’t give advice, but they look on with hope for the future.
“I’ve seen tremendous change in my lifetime,” Richard Guthrie said. “We farmed with horses when I started out.”
Guthrie said his first farm job as a little boy was riding a horse-drawn binder that tied together bundles of grain cut by another horse-drawn machine. Now, much of the farmwork his daughter and grandson do is computerized.
“I hope it pays off for them,” Richard Guthrie said.
“I think it will. They work hard,” Frances Guthrie said. “We’re glad they’re here, and farming.”
With an annual milk production of 207 million gallons worth about $481 million, Virginia is small as dairy states go, said Eric Paulson, executive director of the Virginia State Dairymen’s Association. The association is headquartered in Bridgewater and has about 585 members.
Although small, it has a significant impact. Virginia’s dairy sector accounted for about $1.2 billion in economic productivity last year, according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures. And, Paulson said, Virginia is centrally located in the southeastern U.S., which is considered a fluid milk deficit region — a fact that can translate to opportunity for farmers.
Still, it can be hard to make a go of a family dairy farm. While the number of milk cows has remained constant at about 94,000 animals, the number of farms continues to decline, Paulson said. Today there are about 632 dairy farms in the state, with an average herd size of about 145 cows.
But with robotic technology and growing interest in local food production and niche dairy products, more small, family owned farms have a chance at success.