MIDWAY – The Midway area of Utah has developed a reputation for relaxing getaways and pampering from local resorts and hot spring. At the same time, the town is remembered for training past and future Olympic athletes. Those two worlds collide at the dairy of Grant Kohler and his son Russell as they look to bring technology to create an atmosphere of comfort and performance for their bovine athletes.
Far from Jurassic Park, the use of technology on the Kohler dairy is all focused around the mindset of cow comfort, because comfortable cows are healthier and will produce more milk for the family’s cheese, ice cream and milk markets.
“The future in dairy farming means we’ll either have really large dairies or smaller, niche dairies, and not much in between,” said Grant Kohler. “When I was a boy, I can remember having something around 130 dairies in Wasatch County, and now we’re down to about three. Selling milk on a large scale just wasn’t stable for us, and we knew we’d have to focus and specialize.”
Kohler referenced the volatile price of milk and the challenge of finding workers as being issues that influenced his family to specialize in their Heber Valley Artisan Cheese business. For years now, the family has been producing award-winning cheeses and has expanded its customer-focused mindset, to include tours, cheesemaking classes, and more.
To help alleviate the challenge of labor and focus on the health of their cows, the Kohlers recently built a new milking parlor and partnered with GEA-Robotics to bring a technological revolution to the company’s dairy.
“This dairy was the first of its kind in the west, and we really designed it with a focus on our customers,” Russ Kohler said. “We wanted to be able to safely take them through the different elements of where their milk comes from.”
Far from an industrial feel, the use of robots on the dairy is to allow cows to be on their own schedule, deciding for themselves when they want to be milked, if they want a massage or back scratch, if they’d like to lay down on comfortable mats or move around, etc. The Kohler’s also provide a balanced diet for the cows, designed by a nutritionist, that keeps the animals healthy.
One robot works to distribute feed for cows, while another constantly works to clean the parlor of manure, and another monitors the health of the cows while it does the milking.
“If the cow has come in to be milked too often, it will send it back out of the milking area until it's ready to be milked again,” Russ Kohler said. “It’s very exciting. We’ll be able to know a lot faster if any are not feeling well and help get them back to their best again. We’ll have a greater ability to monitor, measure and take care of our cows.”
Dillon Feuz, the Department head of Applied Economics at Utah State University spoke to the economics associated with robotic dairies. The university recently got its own robotic teaching and research dairy up and running.
“Research shows the more comfortable a cow is, the higher the milk production,” Feuz said in an interview to the campus’ news outlet, Utah State Today. “At first people look at robotic milking as a labor trade-off, we’re just trading machine for a laborer, [but] if that’s the only trade-off, it would take quite a while to pay off one of those robotic units because they’re pretty expensive.”
Feuz said the savings comes from allowing the cows to be milked when they want to be, which the Kohler’s have found actually results in more milk, not less.
The technology doesn’t end there. The Kohlers installed a ventilation system that takes advantage of the heat that is naturally emitted from the cows and pumps it back into the parlor to help keep it warm in the winter.
“It could be 40 degrees below zero outside, and it will stay at 40 degrees above zero inside the parlor,” Russ said. “That’s been the challenge, to keep the parlor from freezing without spending a fortune.
With all the technology and attention given to the cows, guests coming to see it might be expecting their own turn being pampered. Sorry, that’s only for the cows. For now, guests will have to be satisfied with the delicious milk, cheese and ice cream available for purchase in the creamery store. For more information on tours and the delicious dairy products at Heber Valley Artisan Cheese, visit hebervalleyartisancheese.com or the company’s Facebook profile.