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A.I. may be the answer to dairy farmer woes

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The Lely Astronaut in action.

West Salem, Wis (WXOW) - As dairy farmers fight to survive, many are finding an edge in technology. Artificial intelligence and robotics are quickly changing the landscape of an industry in crisis.

Last year more than 800 Wisconsin dairies shuttered their doors. That's a record 10% of the state's dairy industry gone, seemingly overnight. In an effort to help these farms survive, one man is using advanced technology.

"This is about lowering cost and keeping a family dairy farm running," said John Seehafer, President at Seehafer Refrigeration Inc.

Seehafer Refrigeration is headquartered in Marshfield, WI. The company has installed 30 robots on dairy farms in the Coulee Region.

"This is truly a labor-saving. Robotic milking has changed the way we think about milking cows in the fact that no longer do we have to physically be here to milk the cows," said Seehafer.

The robot is called the Lely Astronaut. Two of them have been installed at a farm in West Salem, home to 120 cows.

"We get information data points every time that animal comes into the robot, and we're learning about the animal and managing the animal based on what the robot tells us. So, it really changes the way a dairy farmer looks at his heard of cows, how can he make more money. It's about managing data and what those cows are telling him through the robot," said Seehafer.

UWL economy professor Taggert Brooks believes industries like dairy farming are transforming, and that could mean jobs lost.

"What we see now with robotic milkers, and this technology, tractors using GPS to largely drive themselves almost autonomously. What we've seen is again a continued replacement of labor with capital," said Brooks.

John explains, on dairy farms, it's getting harder to fill jobs anyway.

"It's just hard to find labor and it doesn't matter if it's dairy farming or many other industries. So it's not that they don't want it, it's just that we can't find the people to be general laborers."

The cost of this technology is steep at $150,000 to $200,000 per robot. Farmers are looking at a five to seven-year return on investment but save on eliminating some of the cost of labor as well as the struggle of finding those workers.

Both John and Professor Brooks recently spoke on a panel at the annual economic indicators conference at UWL. The discussion focused on how A.I. and robotics are shaping industries throughout the 7 Rivers Region.

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Candace Price

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