Tom Anderson

Tom Anderson

Farm business management instructors get to look at the agricultural industry from a strict look at the numbers, removing the emotion that tints an individual producer’s view.

Tom Anderson of Plainview is a Riverland Community College Farm Business Management instructor and president-elect of the Minnesota Association of Agricultural Educators. He offered The Land his views on Minnesota’s dairy industry. Here are Anderson’s responses to an interview via e-mail.

Q: Describe the economic conditions of the Minnesota dairy economy today versus two to three years ago.

Anderson: Input costs of dairy operations are skyrocketing. Feed costs will be up $300 to $500 per cow compared just to last year, and this will depend largely on whether or not the producer had any commercial feed prices locked in, and how much corn they are purchasing off the open market.

Q: Why are there about 10,000 more dairy cows in Minnesota today than a year ago?

Anderson: I believe young people are getting excited about the dairy industry, and we are mostly seeing internal growth from existing herds. Management on top-producing herds is excellent and they are progressive minded. Yes, we will likely see fewer dairy operations but more cows in each herd. Based on our Minnesota State Colleges and Universities Farm Business Management data, the average dairy farm has never had a negative return on a per-cow basis since our records began over 50 years ago.

Q: How will robotic systems impact the Minnesota dairy industry?

Anderson: Much of Minnesota is not designed for the real large, mega-cow operations. Most of our dairy producers would like to maintain 100- to 800-cow operations. However, many dairy farmers would like a lifestyle similar to their counterparts in town. Robotics will be part of their change. Robotic milking will allow families the flexibility in their operations to see their kids play sports, or be active in community events even though these events often occur during “normal” milking hours. Robotic milking is a change to a very “natural” culture for the cows — eat, sleep and make milk. It eliminates the “herding” perspective we see now on many dairy operations. It is great technology which will allow many families to stay in the dairy business, even bring their sons and daughters back to the dairy farm, and improve the quality of life for both the cow and the family.

Q: How is cow (and perhaps operator) longevity enhanced with robotics?

Anderson: Statewide, our turnover rate is 35 percent, meaning we’re replacing about one-third of our dairy cows every year. The dairy farms I toured in Holland were 15 to 18 percent. This would suggest the Dutch farmers have healthy cows and little feet, legs, and/or breeding issues. It is not to say that we have unhealthy cows, but it is an area where many dairy farmers leave money on the table.

Q: Some think adding a robotic system would likely increase the salability of a dairy farm. Your thoughts?

Anderson: I fully believe that a robotic dairy is a very salable product. It is the future of the dairy industry which works to reduce some of our current major dairy issues, e.g. — hired labor, schedule flexibility, quality of life, and even milk quality and quantity.

Q: How much activity is there on new robotic systems?

Anderson: I am currently aware of 13 machines planning to be installed in southeastern Minnesota. Herd sizes range from 65 cows to 280 cows. Depending on the herd’s production, one robot will serve 50 to 60 cows, or 4,500 to 5,000 pounds of milk per day. The current robots being installed are averaging 2.9 to 3.1 milkings per cow per day with decreasing somatic cell counts and increasing production. It is exciting times in the dairy industry. It requires leadership skills, management ability and the aptitude to continually learn the changing industry.

For more information, contact Tom Anderson at or (507) 259-6269.

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