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Hillcrest Farms is Georgia’s 1st robotic dairy farm
Tour this agritourism gem in McDuffie County.
Story by Hope S. Philbrick
If your mental image of a dairy farmer is someone perched on a three-legged stool to milk cows by hand, visit Hillcrest Farmsfor an update. The first robotic dairy farm in the state of Georgia is now giving tours at its fourth-generation farm in Dearing, a small community in McDuffie County near Augusta.
Take part in a 90-minute tour and you’ll come face-to-face with cows, learn how the high-tech approach to milking has been implemented and how the cows have reacted (spoiler alert: they’re happy!), learn something new, spend time with nature, and bring new meaning to the phrase ‘farm-to-table.’
For a behind-the-scenes peek at Hillcrest Dairy and its new tours, we talked to Mark Rodgers, general manager and among his family’s third generation of owners-operators.
The Hillcrest Dairy website doesn’t mention your family members who founded the farm. Tell me about the beginning.
G.L. and Lucille Rodgers moved to this property in 1941—they’d lived on a farm on the other side of town before getting this one. Our family had been in the community since the early 1800s.
Has it always been a dairy farm?
The reality back then (in the 1930s, ‘40s, and ‘50s) is that there were 3,000 dairies in the state of Georgia. There are 120-something now, each of which produces way more milk. Back then, most dairies would milk a few cows for their family and the families of their employees. If and when they reached a point that they had more milk than the family cold use they’d market the excess. Dairies used to grow row crops, too, but over time became more strictly dairy. Everything we grow is to feed the cows.
You’re officially Georgia’s first robotic dairy—impressive! Tell me more.
We were looking at the 4th generation. My nephew Josh has a degree in industrial maintenance and his wife Marlee is in vet school. My daughter Caitlin has a degree in diversified agriculture and is the dairy operations manager. To do other updates that were needed at the farm, we’d have spent halfway to the cost of robots, so we decided to entertain the idea for them—it’s a really expensive option. My brother Andy is 56 and I’m 58; at our ages we probably wouldn’t have done it, we could have sold the herd, got beef cows, and retired. But with the kids wanting to be in the business, dairy is the better option, so we investigated the possibility of robotics. To see robotics in action we traveled to Wisconsin, Indiana, Michigan, Minnesota, looking at different robotic facilities in order to make our determination. The other reason we ultimately opted to go robotic is our staff. I’m the general manager and HR guy. We want our staff to feel empowered to work differently rather than repetitively and feel challenged to do a better job. We were already one of the top dairies in the Southeast as far as production—we actually lost some production in the process of switching to robotics—but it’s such a huge, positive change for the staff and the cattle. On a long-term basis, it’s a different way to manage cows and a great way to do it. In December, 2019 we made the switch to robotics.
How much do you produce?
We have one of the top herds in the Southeast. We generally get 32,000 pounds of milk per cow per year, or 100 pounds of milk per cow per day.
With robotic milking, the cows choose when to get milked?
It’s a voluntary milking system. The traditional milking way of milking cows is very precise and repetitive. Employees could milk 400 cows every eight hours—they brought them into the parlor in four groups of 100 each. Now a cow may come in at four hours or 14 hours since she was last milked, it’s completely up to her, she sets her own scheduled based on comfort. We are big on cow comfort! We have beach river sand-bedded stalls and they walk on rubber flooring that cost us $100,000 just so their legs and hooves stay comfy and get great traction—it’s made of recycled belting. Cows do not like hot weather and our freestall facility—where cows are free to lay in whatever stall they wish—has a cooling system, fans, and sprinklers to mitigate Georgia’s heat and humidity starting at 68 degrees. Optimum temp for a cow is 30 to 60 degrees—they’re hotter than us, they’re wearing leather coats!
What’s a typical day on the farm?
Feeding time for the cows is precisely at the same time every day, but now the cows decide when they want to milk, so the staff is more flexible to decide what to do when. They might one day do a herd health check, the next day focus on equipment maintenance. Staff members are loving the chance to face new challenges. The robots are flexible. There are only five robots, but they’re running around the clock except for washing 30 minutes three times a day—that’s the only time they’re not milking.
What’s the biggest myth about farming?
That it’s for men. Most of my staff is female. A third of farms in Georgia have women at the helm. My daughter is a dairy operations manager, my nephew’s wife is a vet. You don’t have to be a guy to be a farmer. Every race, every creed, whatever: You can be a farmer.
What happens on the new 90-minute tour?
We start farm tours outside. We talk about the family history, why we farm, how we farm, cow comfort, and then move into the robotics observation center where there are a lot of interactive displays for visitors of all ages, including a life-size fiberglass cow that can be hand-milked, a big-screen TV with a live feed from 14 cameras across the farm, and 30 to 40 flip board questions—such as, How much saliva does a dairy cow produce a day? 125 pounds!—a cow hide to touch, windows to view two robots, signage to explain everything. Then we climb aboard a covered trolley pulled by an antique tractor and ride around the farm. We stop at the ‘moo-ternity’ barn to see any newborn calves—no guarantees, but we do get calves throughout the year. I cover a variety of topics and answer a ton of questions. I try to cater the tours to the group.
Photo Credit: Visit Thomson-McDuffie
Is your milk sold at the farm or anywhere locally within McDuffie County?
No. We market through a cooperative. We’re not a creamery, so we can’t bottle or pasteurize here. The reality is that milk plants put different labels on jugs, but it’s the same milk inside. The quality of the milk has more to do with the quality of the person hired to roll milk around and if it’s been stored cold enough all along the delivery route. Find the one you like and buy it, then buy more of it.
In addition to the tours, do you offer other on-the-farm activities?
No, which is why we started the tours. What we’re trying to do is give you a chance to get on a farm, ask a farmer questions, and the response has been tremendous. People love it and are amazed. We’re open to hosting events; we’ve hosted meetings and a tractor show.
Book your farm tour online here. Tickets are $10 per adult, $7 for youngsters through 12th grade, and free for children age 3 and younger; minimum $100 for a tour to occur. During the coronavirus pandemic, you’ll share a farm tour only with your own companions and won’t be asked to mingle with others. Please wear a face mask during indoor portions of the tour.