Jul 9, 2024

Bridging the Gap between Dairy and Tech

Rebecca Steiger works in farm management support in Lynden, Washington.

When she was little, Rebecca Steiger (’17) spent summers at her uncle’s dairy farm in Lynden, Washington.

“When my parents got sick of me, they just sent me to the farm,” she jokes. “I’d move irrigation pipes, feed calves, wash down the milk parlor.”

She also rode along to different farms with her father, a large-animal veterinarian who developed strong relationships with area farmers.

Those experiences, as well as her time with Future Farmers of American (FFA), inspired her to pursue an agriculture: animal science major at Dordt.

“I quickly realized that my professors wanted me to succeed; I was able to build personal relationships with my professors and with many of my peers.”

She credits Instructor Emeritus of Agriculture Gary De Vries with helping her find work opportunities, including her first job at a company in Michigan. Then a friend and fellow Dordt graduate told her about a position in British Columbia working in dairy nutrition; she moved back to Lynden and commuted across the United States-Canada border to help area farms with establishing and maintaining a healthy diet for dairy cows.

“At that point, robot milkers had been popular in B.C. for 15 years; a third of my clients were robot farms, so I learned a lot about that form of dairy farming,” she says.

About five years ago, Whatcom County dairy farmers became more interested in robotic milkers. Steiger knew she had the knowledge to help. “I went to Daritech in Lynden and said, ‘You’ve got a bunch of robot projects coming up. I can help you.”

More farmers are implementing robotic milkers in part because of the difficulty in finding employees. “Plus, robotic milkers have become less expensive; every year, new models come out with features that are more useful for the farmers.”

At Daritech, Steiger works in farm management support, which she calls her dream job.

“I bridge the gap between the technology and the cows,” she explains. “We have technicians at Daritech who can fix milk pumps and run the milk lines, but they don’t know about how to directly address a cow’s needs. I also help the farmers and employees with training; if they need to better understand the management software, how to look at milk quality on a cow, or check a cow’s health status, I’m there to help them work through the data.”

In many ways, Steiger’s work is about building strong, trusting relationships with the farmers. “We collect 120 units of data per cow per day, and every farmer has different priorities for their farm. I want to learn what’s important to them, and then I help them learn the best way to sift through the data to reach their goals.”

Many of the farmers Steiger works with are people she grew up around; many attended Dordt. And no matter what, Steiger wants the farmers to know that they are her number one priority.

“I’m working with people who are trying out a new technology, which might make them nervous or stressed. It is a big financial investment. A lot of these folks are Christians, too. So I am able to stand there and say, ‘The Lord will provide; we’ll get through this. Yes, this is scary, but you took the path that you felt called to.’”

“Investing in robotic milking can be a sign that the younger generation is committing to coming back to the family farm."

Dairy farming is not easy: feed, fuel, and shipping costs have all gone up, not to mention the uncertain demand and variable milk price. Farmers are looking for ways to be more efficient with labor and feed, and many have found robotic milkers to be beneficial.

“We feed cows grain in the robot while they’re being milked,” she says. “So, instead of a feed bunk for all the cows, we can provide more grain for high-producing cows and give less to low-producing cows. Our income over feed costs can improve with robots. Many farmers get more milk with robots, which means more profit per cow.”

Steiger gets excited when family farms put in robotic milkers. “A lot of times, it’s a sign that the younger generation is committing to coming back to the family farm—to investing in it,” she says. “Younger farmers definitely see the value in robots, and it’s a sign of what the future of farming might hold in Whatcom County.”

There are fewer dairy farms in Lynden than there used to be. “In college, I didn’t think moving back to Lynden would be possible due to urban sprawl and restrictive regulations. But the industry’s direction toward robotics has opened up an opportunity for me to work in my dream job.”

Sarah Moss ('10)

A picture of campus behind yellow prairie flowers