In the cold, pre-dawn hours, what farmer crawling out of bed doesn't wish he could just press a button and have some electronic machine milk the cows?
As incredible as it may seem, that day may not be too far off.
Down on the farm, a new era of computer technology is beginning, including the robotic milker being tested at the University of Maryland's Agricultural Experiment Station near Clarksville.
"This is a prototype," Robert E. Bassler Jr., a farm official, said of the milking unit that looks more like the kind of machine found in a modern aluminum can manufacturing plant. "It's the only one in the United States."
While he noted that a lot of work needs to be done to perfect the equipment, Mr. Bassler sees the day when it may be possible for a farmer to milk a herd of Holsteins while out on the tractor taking a second cutting of hay.
Computer technology is beginning to change farming, just as it has changed retailing, accounting, publishing, manufacturing and other industries. And as rising costs and fluctuating prices squeeze profits, farmers are counting on computers to boost productivity.
Computers are being used to operate automatic livestock feeders, to provide grain and livestock farmers with up-to-the-minute market information. Farmers also can tap into an international network of agriculture experts to solve problems.
At the Char Mar Dairy, near Burkittsville in Frederick County, cows don't have names like Bossie, Daisy or Buttercup and they don't have bells hanging around their necks. The bells have been replaced by yellow transponders -- about the size and shape of the heels on men's shoes -- that identify each animal by a number.
The transponders are components of a $30,000 computer system that can trace a cow's history, provide up-to-the-minute information on its milk output and help automate the milking process.
Dwight Brandenburg, the farm's self-proclaimed computer whiz, punches a few keys on the computer in an office adjacent to the milking parlor and the screen fills with information about a cow. It can tell how many days it has been since she calved, or how much milk she gave that morning -- to within a tenth of a pound.
"This is important," Charles Brandenburg, Dwight's father and owner of the farm, said of the milk weight reading. "If production drops off you can pick up on it immediately. You know if she has a problem. She may be sick."
And if there's a health problem, such as mastitis, an udder infection, it's easy to handle. Just punch that information into the computer, and the next time the cow makes its way to the milker, the computer will set off a flashing light that reminds the farmer to set her milk aside.
Charles Brandenburg could keep such information in his head back in the 1940s when he started milking cows -- there were only 15 cows in the herd. Today, the Brandenburgs milk 650 Holsteins, and after awhile they pretty much look alike.
But the computer "sees" each one differently. As a cow moves into the milking parlor, an antenna in the doorway identifies it by its transponder and activates the electronic sensor at the milker where the cow will stop. The sensor tells the computer the cow's identification number and the amount of milk it gives.
Unlike the experimental milker being tested by the University of Maryland, workers at Char Mar Dairy must place the suction cups on the cow. But when the cow is finished, the milker automatically releases and draws back into position to await the next cow.
Andy Stone, who milks 180 cows at a farm outside of Boonsboro in Washington County, remembers when his dad would get up at 4 a.m. to feed and milk a much smaller herd. Today, Andy lets a computer do the feeding.
Each cow has a 3-by-6-inch plastic plate containing magnetic tapes hanging from a collar around its neck. As the cow moves into any of the eight feeder stalls and leans its head into the feed bowl, the plate swings forward and touches a computer tape on the feeder.
The computer tape reads the cow's identification number, and dispenses a portion of the animal's prescribed daily allocation into a feed trough.
"And the cows can't outsmart it," Mr. Stone said. It will pick up any attempt on the cow's part to move to another feeder in hopes of getting an extra helping.
Mr. Stone also uses a computer-operated feed mixer that automatically draws the right amount of haylage, cotton seed and corn silage from storage, mixes it and moves it via a conveyor belt to the automated feeder.
The new equipment doesn't come cheap. The computerized feeder costs about as much as two new pickup trucks. The mixer carried a price tag of $19,000. And Mr. Stone has another $50,000 invested in the computerized milking parlor.
He joked that he's still trying to figure out how to pay for the new technology. Turning serious, he said, "The computer can make the whole farm more profitable because it takes a lot of the guessing out of farming."
By determining the right amount of food for each cow, the farm doesn't waste money by overfeeding or lose milk production by underfeeding.
"A cow that gives 100 pounds of milk a day does not cost a whole lot more to feed than a cow that gives 50 pounds a day," he said. "The computer helps weed out the low producers. We beef them."
"Before we put this system in, our herd average was 40 pounds [of milk] a day," he said. "After we got it in and fine-tuned it, our daily herd average grew. It's now 71 pounds a day."
Like prices for other agriculture commodities, milk prices can change from day to day. Based on the current state average price of $13 per hundredweight, the Stone farm would have gross sales of about $1,660 a day. At the farm's former production average, sales would have been only about $930.
Keeping track of milk prices, along with prices for corn, wheat, hogs, chickens and other commodities, is as important to a farm's success as production figures.
That's why more and more farmers are connecting their computers to the Data Transmission Network (DTN) that provides information on market prices, weather, agriculture news and market outlooks. In addition to grain quotes from the Chicago Board of Trade and livestock prices from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, the network can tell a farmer what price to expect for products sold at local markets.
The around-the-clock information service helps farmers get the highest price for their crops while reducing their financial risk, said James R. Russell, coordinator of the University of Maryland's Wye Research and Education Center in Queenstown, Queen Anne's County.
It also provides weather information. "A storm in Iowa can have a dramatic impact on prices," Mr. Russell said. "It's best that a farmer know about it as early as possible." The network even includes international news that can impact prices, such as a crop failure in Ukraine.
Melvin Baile Jr., a Carroll County grain and livestock farmer, uses the service daily. "It keeps me on top of things. It has made marketing a 365-day a year job, which it should be.
"In the past farmers tended to focus on production and let marketing take care of itself," he said. "But with profit margins being squeezed like they are today . . . you have to know what's going on, what the price trends are, and sell at the best time."
While the data transmission network can warn of problems, another computer system developed by the University of Maryland 2 1/2 years ago can help solve them. Mark Varner, an extension specialist with the university, said the school's Dairy-L computer network that is plugged into the global Internet system taps the expertise of 250 agriculture authorities around the world.
To explain how it works, Mr. Varner uses the case of a veterinarian puzzled by the deaths of cows at a farm along the Maryland-Delaware border. Information on the problem was put into the network and a veterinarian in Washington state determined that it was a disease commonly called fog fever, a breathing disorder similar to emphysema.
Technology is moving rapidly, but it may be another 10 years before a dairy farmer can press a button on the night stand and have some machine do the milking.
Although Mr. Bassler said the robotic milker, developed by
PTC Dutch company, has promise, the technology still needs to be refined.
Here's how it works: A cow is identified by the transponder hanging from its neck as it approaches a feeder for a snack. A gate closes behind the animal when it moves into the milker. Control panels on each side of the cage-like booth move in until they touch the cow's sides, moving it into the proper position.
A milking carriage, containing the milker, moves up from behind the cow until sensors touch the animal. The floor beneath the cow's hind legs rises in the center and slopes at an angle to the sides. This forces the animal's legs apart and kick bars slide into position to give the cow something to lean against.
A soft rotating brush comes in between the cow's hind legs to wash the udders. After the brush retracts, the milking cluster (the portion of the equipment holding the milking unit) moves into position. The teat cups move about until they are in the proper position, according to data already stored into the computer.
The teat cups rise into position and the milking begins. When completed, they retract and the milking cluster moves back to its original position, where it is washed in preparation for the next milking.
The carriage, positioning panels, kick bars and floor boards retract, too. A gate opens and the cow heads out to make room for the next.
The whole process takes about 12 minutes compared to 8 minutes with the traditional semiautomatic milking system used by most farms.
Is the computerized system affordable? "It's too soon to tell," Mr. Bassler said. He estimated it eventually will cost about the same as a small milking parlor, or $70,000 to $120,000, depending on the amount of automation.
He predicted the automated milker could help preserve the family farm. It could "give a good manager with a moderate herd a chance to survive," he said.