For the past two years our kitchen table conversations have revolved around our dreams for the future of our farm. We're not planning on milking cows in a tiestall barn for the next 30 years, so we usually talk about parlors and freestalls and how to combine loose housing with cows on pasture.

Two events this summer have changed the subject of these conversations.

First, we saw a robotic milker in operation. Second, some friends of ours mentioned that they're switching their calves to group housing and installing two automatic calf feeders.

I have to admit, I'm pretty smitten with the idea of letting cows milk themselves. It's not so much that I don't like milking cows, because I really do. It's more so that I like the idea of letting the cows empty their udders whenever they want to. As a lactating mother, I know what it feels like to stand at the barn door and bellow for an hour before milking time.

The idea of letting calves feed themselves also makes a lot of sense to me. About the only thing worse than a calf bawling because it's hungry is an infant (or toddler) crying because she (or he) had to wait for her (or his) meal.

Glen isn't as sold on the ideas as I am.

"Does that mean their kids are going to grow up not knowing how to feed calves?" Glen asked about our friends and their automatic calf feeders.

"How would our kids learn how to work with cattle?" he asked as we drove away from the farm with the robotic milker.

Glen's questions started the wheels of thought turning in my head.

One year at the county fair, some fellow exhibitors were having trouble milking one of their show cows. The trouble wasn't with the equipment or the cow - they just didn't know how to tell when she was done. My thought at the time was, "Whaddya mean you don't know how to tell if she's done?"

The answer was just as simple as the question, even though it was difficult for me to comprehend. At that time we milked in the stall barn, so checking cows' udders and watching milk flow in the claw were things I did hundreds of times each day. My fellow exhibitors had automatic take-offs in their parlor, so they had never learned how to manually or visually evaluate a cow's milk-out status.

Since then, I've learned to milk with automatic take-offs. And when I say learned, that's what I mean. It took some time to wean myself of checking udders when the milker came off. We don't milk with take-offs now, but we will again someday soon. Which makes me wonder, how will Dan and Monika know what an empty udder feels like?

What other skills have become, or will become, archaic because of advances in technology on dairy farms?

My grandfather grew up chipping holes in the ice on the river to water his family's cattle in the winter. We watered our youngstock with hoses when I was a girl. Instead of needing to know how to drain a hose so it won't freeze, Dan and Monika will learn how to adjust the temperature in the Ritchie.

Dad didn't get a four-wheeler for buzzing out to the pasture until after I went off to college. He always told us girls it was better to walk. Will I be able to help Dan and Monika understand the value in walking out to get the cows, instead of just hopping on the four-wheeler?

Heck, there are a lot of dairy farm kids who don't know what it means to bring the cows in from pasture, whether by four-wheeler or by foot.

The same is true with stacking square bales up in the barn - that task has been replaced on many farms by big square balers and skid loaders.

Even little things, like opening a sack of feed, don't require the same skills anymore. When I started feeding calves, you had to know how to untie the strings so they could be pulled apart, and which end to start from. Now all the bags of feed have quick release strips and arrows that say "pull here".

In less than 100 years, we've gone from milking cows by hand to letting cows milk themselves, from feeding calves in pails to letting them feed themselves. If my grandfather were alive to see these robots and calf feeders and even some of the newer parlors, for that matter, he'd probably think he was visiting George Jetson's dairy farm.

Where will the dairy industry go in the next hundred years? I think we're on the edge of a new era in the dairy industry, an era that will be easier on knees and shoulders, one that will allow a full night's sleep, at least for most of the year.

As we adopt new technologies to reduce the amount of time and labor our dairies require, a lot will change. What will happen to our current knowledge base and skill set? How will our children learn the values of hard work, ingenuity, and responsibility that so define dairy farmers and their kids?

Sadie and her husband, Glen, milk 70 cows near Melrose, Minn. with help from their son, Dan, and their daughter, Monika. When she's not farming, she's writing for the Dairy Star. Sadie can be reached at gsfrericks@meltel.net.