According to the Iowa State Dairy Association, many dairy farmers in Iowa need to upgrade their equipment to ensure future generations don’t turn away from the labor-intensive industry.

The association is pushing for legislation to create a state grant or forgivable loan program to help dairy farmers automate various aspects of their tireless work. The proposed bills – House File 2433 and Senate File 2290 – would also seek to create educational programs showing farmers how to turn their milk into cheese, ice cream, yogurt and other products.

There are about 850 dairy farms in Iowa, ranging in size from 25 to 10,000 cows. A typical dairy in the state processes about 250 cows.

“The next generation, when we look at bringing them into the operation, having that quality of life – that ability to attend your children’s events, to be there for the birth of your daughter – all of that can be made possible through robotics,” Mitch Schulte, executive director of the dairy association, told lawmakers last week.

Dairy cows are often milked at least twice a day, every day of the year. The ability of many farmers to get away from their livestock depends largely on the availability of other workers to help them. Even dinner can take precedence over the dairy.

“During all my youth, we never had supper at 6 o’clock in the evening. It was usually later, between 8 and 9 (am),” said John Maxwell, who operates Cinnamon Ridge Farms northwest of Davenport. “After school, it was: you come home, you do chores, you help in the dairy, you have dinner, you do your homework and you go to bed. I did very little sport.

Maxwell is a fifth-generation farmer who has walked the gamut of dairy technology. He has known since childhood what it is like to milk a cow by hand in a bucket. Now he has robotic equipment to do it.

In 2012, he built a state-of-the-art dairy with machinery that automates much of the milking, feeding and manure cleaning. There is even a device for scratching the backs of animals.

Prior to this installation, his farm was milking about 40 cows at any one time with a crew of three or four. Now Maxwell milks around 220 cows with a similarly sized crew, although he said it was possible just one person would run the operation.

Her eldest daughter maintains the robots. Without automation, it would have been difficult to convince her to stay at the dairy after high school.

“It’s a big deal if we’re going to keep young people or the next generation in Iowa,” Maxwell said. “It’s also a big deal if we don’t want to be an industry or a nation where three, four or five big conglomerates own everything.”

He sells most of his milk to Brewster Cheese in Illinois, which processes it into Swiss cheese. A small percentage of its milk is transformed into cheese on site: flavored cheese curds, cheddar blocks, smoked gouda.

Basically, Maxwell’s operation is a great example of what the new legislation wants to copy.

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Schulte said he hopes the state will provide up to $200,000 per dairy farm to help pay for the new technology. It won’t cover the full cost of the improvements, but it would help farmers get loans or other funding to pay for the rest. The bills would also create a task force to help develop educational programs, which could be offered by community colleges or state regent universities.

“We need to teach our farmers to make a product that they can sell to the local community,” Schulte said.

The task force would identify the products most likely to succeed and decide whether farmers can learn to make them with a few weeks of training or a full degree.

The House and Senate bills were approved by each house’s agriculture committees last week. It is not known when they could be considered by the plenary chambers.

The bills have the support of several farm groups, including the dairy association and the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, as well as the Iowa Chapter of the Sierra Club.

“We’re extremely optimistic,” Schulte said of the bills’ future. “We know there is support for locally made products and help for dairy farmers.”