In a small room inside Gary Kieffer's dairy barn, a cow walks into a metal box. It's milking time on the farm. Humans are not required.
A robotic arm swings below the cow's udder and two small, spinning brushes set to cleaning. An electronic tag around the cow's neck pinpoints where she is in her milking cycle. A precise amount of feed -- a treat to get the cow in place -- falls into a small trough at the end of the box. A laser finds the teats, attaches the milker and starts pumping, recording butterfat and protein levels in the milk.
Ten minutes later, the process is done. The computer unlocks the gate. The cow walks back into the barn. The next cow steps in and repeats. If there's a problem, the robot will call Kieffer on his cell phone. The robots essentially let cows milk themselves.
"Precision dairy" systems have grown steadily in Minnesota since a southwest Minnesota farmer installed the first one in the state seven years ago. Entry costs are steep. Keiffer spent $800,000 on five robotic milkers a few years ago and figures it will take about six years to see a profit.
It's possible, though, that the technology's long run savings may end up preserving a bedrock piece of rural Minnesota, the mid-sized dairy farm.
"Precision dairy I think has kept some of the farms, especially in the 120- to 140-cow size, in business," said Marcia Endres, a University of Minnesota professor helping analyze a year's worth of data gathered from 52 Minnesota and Wisconsin dairy farms using robotic milking technology.
That's a fraction of the 16,000 dairy farms in the two states, but Endres said the technology is having a huge impact, especially on mid-sized farms.
On Kieffer's operation, just outside Utica in southeast Minnesota it's easy to see. Instead of milking 300 cows three times a day, his hours are flexible. He's almost entirely eliminated his labor costs, though training the cows to walk into the machines was no easy task.
"You had to push them in the first day or so, get them used to coming into the robot," he said. "After three days, they started coming in better. It got a lot easier. After three months, it got super easier but it took time."
Now, the barn is surprisingly calm. Kieffer says no more chasing cows at milking time. And, he says his quality of life has also improved.
"You don't have to be here with the cows. We can spread out our days much easier. If we have hay to make, we don't have to spend time right there with the cows, we can do it later."
The technology has changed quickly in the last few years. Manufacturers now offer iPhone and iPad applications that let farmers track the robots from a distance.
The economics of robot milkers are improving, but farmers still need "very good equity to get started in this system because they're very high-tech and it's a cost-benefit thing," Enders said. "They give you a lot of information but they're not going to be very cheap, obviously."
Cost remains the question for Pine Island producer Duane Alberts.
"A lot of this technology is nice to look at but I don't know about this year," Alberts said he looked over an automated calf feeding system at a dairy expo in Rochester on a recent afternoon.
He milks 600 cows at his seventh-generation farm. Like many dairy farmers in southeast Minnesota, Alberts lost his entire alfalfa crop this year and money is tight.
Alberts wants to automate his milking parlor. But he might have to start with a manure scraper, which at $15,000 is a fraction of the cost of a robotic milker.
"This year, it might be just a little high-priced," said. "But next year, hopefully things will be a little better. And I sure would like that manure scraper," he added, laughing.