Let's Reminisce: Milk cows can be difficult to manage
By Jerry Lincecum
May 24, 2018
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Sometimes a photograph can trigger a reminiscence.  Recently as I read my morning Wall Street Journal, I looked at a photo with this caption: "Labor shortage and low productivity were threatening the future of the Kato farm, on the Japanese island of Hokkaido. That was until the Kato family invested $2 million in robots that milk cows while offering them tasty treats."

Immediately I pictured the cow I had trouble milking on our farm when I was a teenager.  Daddy was far better at milking than I, and it was only because he had to report for work at 7 a.m. at his new highway construction job that I had to make the effort.  We called the cow gOld Jerseyh and she knew a thing or two about taking advantage of an inexperienced milker.


I wouldnft describe the food we gave her as gtasty treats,h but she was fond of it and managed to eat it up before I finished milking her.  Thatfs when the trouble began.  She could turn her attention solely to me and start shifting around, aiming a foot at the milk bucket.  I never managed to get as much milk from her as my dad.


One of my TOS writers, Rebecca Shirley, shared a reminiscence recently about her experience with a milkcow.  She raised a calf on a bottle and named her Sueky.  After the heifer got old enough, she went to the pasture, and when she gfoundh her first calf, Rebeccafs dad thought Sueky might make a good milk cow because her mother had been one.  


Herefs the rest of the story: gSueky came home and Dad went out to milk her. I was eating breakfast when he came in with about an inch of milk in the bucket. I asked, eHow did she do?f He retorted, eThat darn little cow kicked me!f  I knew better, but I laughed and asked, eDid you kick back?f


gHe turned around and handed me the milk bucket, eShe is your cow, you can milk her!f I bargained with him to do it at night, rather than morning, and he said, eOK, as long as she is milked once a day. We can let the calf have the rest.f That day at school, I visited the agriculture teacher, and he showed me how to use a rope to hobble the cow. I donft know if Dad ever found out, but I never got kicked!h


Now flash forward to the Kato farm in Japan, 2018.  I went to the WSJ on-line to watch a short video about the robots that do their milking.  The elder Mr. Kato talks about his difficulty in finding workers to do the grueling work of milking 100 cows by hand each morning.  He was skeptical about the use of robots for this task, but his son made the decision.  Instead of taking 8-9 hours, the robots do the job in 3 hours.  Other robots clean the stalls, using a scraper to push the manure into a sewer.  Mr. Kato and his son concentrate on better care for the cows.


Mr. Katofs son used to work from 4-9 a.m. each morning to supervise the workers.  With the robots he works from 5-6:30 and then has breakfast with his family.  An added benefit is that the Kato farm can now process their own cheese and butter instead of having to sell the raw milk to a processing firm.  They will soon be able to process ice cream and yoghurt as well.


The increase in productivity means that despite an investment of $2 million for the robots, the Katos will earn more money and enjoy better family life. 

Jerry Lincecum is a retired Austin College professor who now teaches classes for older adults who want to write their life stories.  He welcomes your reminiscences on any subject: