What began a dozen years ago with a little Guernsey calf named Bubbles has morphed into a high-tech dairy operation at the new Woodbourne Creamery at the Rock Hill Orchard farm in Damascus.
It’s all due to a Swedish-made robotic machine that automatically milks cows without needing people to attach tubes to the teats.
The DeLaval voluntary milking system has a computerized robotic arm that uses laser beams to locate the teats and automatically milk each cow, letting employees work elsewhere.
The Guernseys, which feed mostly on grass and hay, have learned they have to be milked regularly. They walk into the milking chute on their own.
“It’s up to the cow — they come in by themselves,” said John Fendrick, who owns the farm off Ridge Road with his wife, Mary Fendrick.
The computerized milking system keeps track of the unique needs and output of each animal, which wears an identifying ear tag. If anything disrupts the routine, the system alerts the Fendricks, who monitor the situation on a computer at home.
Widely used in Europe, the DeLeval system has been used in the U.S. for about 10 years, John Fendrick said. He figures the farm can recoup its $150,000 investment in the machine in three years.
The Fendricks milk 22 Guernseys; the DeLaval system can handle 60 to 65 cows a day.
“We believe that this type of machine is well worth it for the small farmer,” he wrote in an email to The Gazette. The machine “saves us time from not milking twice (or three times) per day which we can use to run the rest of the farm.”
“This also allows us to have a life and leave the farm in the morning or evening and not be required to milk at set times each day,” Fendrick wrote. “For us, this allows us to not have to hire an extra person whose job is just to milk cows.”
On Nov. 18, the Fendricks demonstrated the DeLaval system to curious dairy farmers and supporters.
Also present were officials from county and state agencies, some of which had provided grants for fencing and a pasture-based water supply to eliminate the need for cows to drink from local streams.
Officials said they support small-scale agricultural businesses that, while preserving open space, can successfully produce locally grown products for consumers and restaurants.
“It tastes better, it’s fresh and it’s a way of [financially] supporting the local community,” said Earl “Buddy” Hance, secretary of the Maryland Department of Agriculture, who attended the demonstration.
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D), who grew up on a farm, agreed.
“This presents a model all of us can emulate,” he said.
The Fendricks are building a base of regional customers willing to pay $7 a gallon for their milk — almost double the supermarket price, Mary Fendrick said.
“People want to know where their food comes from,” she said, citing the success of South Mountain Creamery in Middletown in Frederick County, which delivers its milk to 8,500 customers in the region.
The Fendricks plan to expand their herd next year and start producing and selling their own cheese and ice cream.
“We just need people to buy it,” Mary Fendrick said.
The new Woodbourne Creamery, which started selling milk in April, is the first new creamery in Montgomery County in 60 years, according to the MOOseum dairy museum in Germantown, John Fendrick said.
Of the five dairy operations in Montgomery County, only Woodbourne Creamery processes, bottles and sells its milk in its own retail store, on Ridge Road.
Most dairy farmers ship their milk to a processor, which sells its wholesale. That cuts into the farmers’ revenues, versus retailing the milk products themselves.
“I’m very happy for them,” said Dan Leaman, a friend of the Fendricks and president of the Montgomery County Agricultural Fair.
A financially viable operation might be an incentive for the younger generation in Montgomery County to stick with agriculture, he said. “It might help keep kids on the farm.”
Leaman — who grew up on a family farm in Boyds and had his own herd of Holsteins until 1989 — also said the Fendricks are unusual because they sell their own milk and also sell fruits and vegetables.
He said he doesn’t know enough yet about the robotic milking system to say if it would benefit a small dairy farmer who is only milking and shipping to a processor.
“I think [Woodbourne Creamery] is a really unique situation,” Leaman said. “I think people will be watching it to see how it goes.”
“We like to call ourselves the ‘accidental farmers,’” said Mary Fendrick, who, like her husband, grew up in the suburbs with vegetable gardens — John in Chevy Chase and Mary in Staten Island, N.Y.
Both have a background in computers and information technology. When their two sons were born, they bought a 24-acre farm in Germantown.
Mary started bringing fresh eggs to work and they bought some sheep. Then came the first cow, Bubbles.
She was the cheapest cow at an all-breed 4-H sale in Frederick County, said John Fendrick.
One cow led to two, and soon the family was showing cows at 4-H events as far away as Louisville, Ky., about a 12-hour drive.
“It was a long way to come through the mountains of West Virginia,” he said.
As the herd increased, the Fendricks sent the cows to board at a farm in Middletown, as they continued learning about the dairy business. A year ago, they observed the Mason Dixon Farm operation near Gettysburg, Pa., which uses robotic machines to milk 1,000 cows a day.
“They had one person, who was wearing loafers, not boots — that guy looked pretty relaxed,” John Fendrick joked. That led to the subsequent decision to take the plunge and buy a robotic milker themselves.