September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.
Branstad visited Fitzgerald, Inc. near Elkader, Iowa, as part of a business tour to the northeast part of the Hawkeye State. Fitzgerald, a milking equipment and service company, has been in business 55 years. It's owned by Mike Fitzgerald and his wife, Kristin, and Al and Joyce Prier.
Much of Branstad's 90-minute stop at Fitzgerald focused on the new and rapidly evolving robotic technology. Fitzgerald outlined for the Governor some of the changes dairying has seen, going from bucket milkers in the 1950s, to pipelines in the '70s, milking parlors in the '90s, and now robotic milkers.
"[Robots are] the part of our business right now that's really exciting and moving forward," Fitzgerald said.
Governor Branstad is no stranger to farming or milking cows. He grew up on a diversified farm near Leland, Iowa, in Winnebago County, near the border with Minnesota.
"When I was a kid, we never saw the governor. We said, 'Well, he thinks we're part of Minnesota. That's why we never see him,'" Branstad said as a joke.
To make sure the people of Iowa get to see this Governor, Branstad makes a point of visiting all 99 counties at least once every year. His April 16 trek took him to Clayton, Dubuque and Winneshiek counties.
One item of equipment that seemed to especially interest Governor Branstad was the automatic calf feeder Fitzgerald has in its show room. Fitzgerald explained to the Governor and approximately 50 representatives of area businesses how the feeder identifies a calf and then dispenses a prescribed amount milk replacer at various times throughout the day.
"I've never seen one of those before," Branstad said. "I've done bottle feeding calves. That's amazing."
The Governor also saw and learned about robotic alley scrapers, a robotic feed delivery system, an automatic cow brush, a robotic feed pusher, and a milk pasteurizer.
"It makes a lot of sense," Branstad said about the pasteurizer.
Seeing an example of the "box" that a cow steps into so she can be milked robotically, and hearing an explanation of how the device functions, prompted the Governor to remark, "That's just unbelievable."
Fitzgerald talked about the way different technologies work together. Northeast Iowa Community College (NICC) in Calmar, Iowa, has two robotic milkers.
"One of our service technicians can pull out a smart phone, access the NICC computer, and tell you if something has broken down," Fitzgerald said.
A flat-screen monitor on a showroom wall let Branstad see some of the technology in action. He watched intently the video of a robotic feed pusher and a robotic barn scraper going about their chores, untended by any people.
Fitzgerald explained that his store can connect to cameras on farms and show the various machines actually working.
Just about all the farms that buy robotic milkers through his business now also opt for a feed pusher, Fitzgerald said, adding that 12 farms have the machines busily sweep feed to where cows can reach it. The robotic feed pushers can be programmed by way of a cell phone.
Fitzgerald, Inc. has sold and installed 42 robotic milkers since November of 2010, according to Kristin Fitzgerald. Most of the robots went to farms in northeast Iowa, but Fitzgerald's sales and service area also includes part of southwest Wisconsin and part of southern Minnesota.
"Our business has changed a lot and has become more exciting [due to robotics]," she said. "The younger generation is now taking an interest in the dairy industry."
Along with coaxing younger people to seriously consider careers as dairy farmers, robotics has brought younger employees to businesses like Fitzgerald, Inc. Fitzgerald said many new employees are college or technical school graduates, and want better-paying jobs.
"We feel like we can compete now with some of the bigger corporations," Fitzgerald said.
To help provide dairy educations, the company has set up an endowment fund. And, Fitzgerald, Inc. has partnered with NICC, where a Fitzgerald employee has taught classes, which Fitzgerald referred to that as "robotic milking 101."
A non-robotic item also caught the Governor's eye. It was a scaled-down version of a cow water bed.
"This is just a sample. In a barn, you'd have them four feet by 72 inches and filled with water. Cow comfort is a big thing in dairy barns today," Fitzgerald said.
"What do they do? Just walk on it?" Branstad asked.
"They lay down on it. There's one in every freestall," Fitzgerald said.
In the company's warehouse, the Governor got a quick look at the plethora of products a dairy equipment business like Fitzgerald keeps on hand - cleaners, detergents, filters, inflations, iodine. Fitzgerald said his company makes it a practice to retrieve from farms the many plastic barrels that products are stored in and refill them, so they don't end up in landfills.
Fitzgerald reminded Governor Branstad of the economic impact dairying has on Iowa's economy. He said the state ranks 12th for milk production. Every cow that's milked accounts for 10 jobs, and each cow eventually contributes $23,445 to Iowa's economy.
Fitzgerald, Inc. has felt the economic growth. The company was founded in 1959, by Mike Fitzgerald's parents Pat and Arlys. From two employees then, it has grown to 17 employees, and it uses a fleet of 12 vehicles to serve 500 farms.
Al Prier, one of the Fitzgerald owners, told Governor Branstad that one of the company's larger challenges is property taxes.
"You feel like you could use that money for something else," Prier said. "It's like were giving it to them and we're not getting it back. We'd like to decide what we can do with that money ourselves."
Branstad did not promise to lower taxes, but he did acknowledge that property taxes, unemployment taxes, workers' compensation, regulations and the process of acquiring permits can all be a drag on businesses.
"If something does come up, I would just encourage you to call us and let us know," Branstad said. "What we're trying to do is be nimble and move quickly in responding to problems or issues that come along."
Of his visit to Fitzgerald, Inc., Branstad said, "I was extremely impressed. This industry has changed a lot."[[In-content Ad]]
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