Planet Money
10:01 pm
Thu March 8, 2012

Meet Claudia, The High-Tech Cow

Originally published on Mon March 12, 2012 8:09 am

Here's the secret of the modern dairy farm: The essential high-tech advances aren't in machinery. They're inside the cow.

Take a cow like Claudia. She lives at Fulper Farms, a dairy farm in upstate New Jersey. Claudia is to a cow from the 1930s as a modern Ferrari is to a Model T.

In the 1930s, dairy farmers could get 30 pounds of milk per day from a cow. Claudia produces 75 pounds a day.

To appreciate a cow like Claudia, you have to know where to look.

"You see her udder? How well attached, how high it is?" says Robert Fulper, who runs the farm. "If you look at this cow next to her, the udder attachment is totally different."

The cow standing next to Claudia goes by a decidedly less charming name: "Cow #6."

The whole purpose of breeding is to make the next generation look less like Cow #6 and more like Claudia.

Breeding starts when a genetics expert that the Fulpers hire comes and surveys the herd and notes each cow's individual weaknesses - this one's bow-legged, that one's too skinny.

Then the expert finds a bull in the world whose traits can correct for precisely those weaknesses. The bull's semen is shipped to the Fulpers by UPS. The cow is inseminated, and nine months later it gives birth to a calf, which — hopefully — will have some of Claudia's fine, milk-friendly features.

Feeding has also gone high tech. Each cow is fed individually, according to its lactation cycle. The cows wear a special collars that work with a computerized system to deliver the right diet to the right cow.

"If she's at the stage of lactation where she's producing a lot of milk, she'll get a little extra grain there to help support her milk production," says Robert.

The feed itself is perfectly engineered to release nutrients throughout the cow's digestive tract. Think of each mouthful of grain as a little fleet of cargo planes, releasing its payload at just the right moment.

When you ask Robert what's driving all these innovations in dairy farming, he sounds indistinguishable from a factory owner.

"The free market forced that to happen," he says. "Because either you were going to make a lot of milk ... quickly and efficiently ... or you wouldn't be in business."

The Fulpers did it, which is why they are among the last remaining dairy farmers in upstate New Jersey. Those farmers who couldn't keep up with the changes are long gone.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Some other news: Fulper Farms in rural New Jersey is exactly what you'd expect a small dairy farm to look like - white farm house on a hill, couple of rusty silos. But behind that bucolic facade, there's as much technological change going on as in any American factory. Adam Davidson of our Planet Money team reports on the hidden revolution in the American family farm.

ADAM DAVIDSON, BYLINE: Fulper Farms has been in the same family for five generations. In Bob Fulper's time - that's grandpa - back in the Great Depression, it took the family a whole day to milk 15 cows by hand. Today, his son Robert can milk their 110 cows in just a few hours. All he has to do is stick vacuum tubes on the udders and let the machines do the pumping.

(SOUNDBITE OF MILKERS)

DAVIDSON: Being on a modern dairy farm is a lot like being on a modern factory. Machines have replaced a lot of workers, and productivity has soared. But there is a hidden side to the productivity of a modern dairy farm. It's harder to see, because it's inside of the cow.

ROBERT FULPER: And this cow here, she's the queen of the herd, right here.

DAVIDSON: Take a cow like Claudia, for example. Claudia is to a cow from the 1930s as a modern Ferrari is to a Model T.

FULPER: Production level back when they were milking by hand was maybe 30 pounds a cow. Today we're milking, you know, 75 pounds a cow.

DAVIDSON: To appreciate a cow like Claudia, you have to know where to look.

FULPER: You see her udder, how well attached, how high it is, and see how sharp she is and how wide she is, how big her barrel is. These are all the things that make that a special cow. You know, even if you look at this cow next to her, you know, the udder attachment is totally different. So that's why Claudia can just eat like crazy, because she has so much capacity and she makes more milk, and so that's what you're breeding for.

DAVIDSON: Now, not all cows can be a Claudia. Many are like the cow standing next to her - cow number six. The whole purpose of breeding is to make the next generation more like Claudia.

And if you think breeding just means letting some cows and bulls get to know each other in a pasture somewhere - that's definitely the wrong image.

Breeding starts when a genetics expert comes and surveys the herd and notes each cow's individual weaknesses. Then the expert finds a bull somewhere in the world whose traits can correct for precisely those weaknesses. That bull's semen is shipped to the Fulpers by UPS. The cow is inseminated, and nine months later, it gives birth to a calf, which hopefully, will have some of Claudia's fine, milk-friendly features.

Another reason why there's such an increase in productivity - the way cows are fed.

Feed is the single biggest expense for a dairy farmer, so it has to be distributed efficiently. Gone are the days when farmers would just pour feed into a trough and let the cows go wild. Today, each cow is fed individually, according to its lactation cycle and specific needs.

FULPER: These cows wear this collar, and they have a green responder on the bottom of the collar. As they enter that stall, that computer you saw in my office over here identifies her and then sends out feed into the stall, depending on her production level.

DAVIDSON: The feed itself is perfectly engineered to release nutrients at just the right place, at just the right time, throughout the cow's digestive track.

FULPER: Here's a little sugar in the rumen, we want you to digest that with this really available protein and tie it together so it matches. And then further down the track we have some roasted beans, which are slow protein release, and that gets tied up with some other carbohydrates or slower digestible energy sources. I'm amazed that humans aren't this advanced.

DAVIDSON: When you ask Robert what's driving this innovation in dairy farming, he sounds pretty much like any manufacturer making any product.

FULPER: The free market forced that to happen, because either you were going to make a lot of milk and do it quickly and efficiently to stay in business with small margins, or you weren't going to be in business. So it was either do it or don't.

DAVIDSON: The Fulpers say that for all these productivity gains, they're not getting rich at all. In fact, they probably make less money than earlier generations made in the 60s and 50s and 40s. That's because all these productivity gains have been adopted by farmers all over the country and all over the world - and they have to compete, not just with the neighbor down the road, but with farmers in New Zealand and China. Cow farming has become a much more difficult business.

Adam Davidson, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

INSKEEP: It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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