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Milking with Robots - Not Just a Curiosity Anymore!

Posted: December 9, 2008

The adoption and evolution of milking cows without regular intervention by humans (robotic milking, automatic milking, voluntary milking…) is progressing in the US. The Pennsylvania dairy industry, lead by innovative and courageous farmers is participating in this pioneering activity. The questions as to “will robots work?” or “can they reliably identify, prepare and milk cows without human intervention?” are regularly being answered and demonstrated on several farms in Pennsylvania.

The adoption and evolution of milking cows without regular intervention by humans (robotic milking, automatic milking, voluntary milking…) is progressing in the US. The Pennsylvania dairy industry, lead by innovative and courageous farmers is participating in this pioneering activity. The questions as to “will robots work?” or “can they reliably identify, prepare and milk cows without human intervention?” are regularly being answered and demonstrated on several farms in Pennsylvania. Our service and support infrastructure including Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture is partnering with these farmers to provide the required technical expertise and milk quality monitoring and assurance. Farms actively using robots vary from 50 cows with one robot to over 500 cows with 10 robots. We are modeling the European vision of allowing a family to use one or two robots to minimize the necessity of hiring labor and yet get away from the structure of rigid twice daily milking schedules. Multi generational family farms with more division of labor are also applying this technology to 200-600 cow herds. The typical Pennsylvania dairy farm using milking robots looks a lot like the typical Pennsylvania dairy farm in size, cow care and milk production. This is not the first time Pennsylvania has participated in demonstrating and adopting new practices to assure a healthful supply of quality milk and a future for our dairy farm families and support industry.

Robotic or automatic milking systems allow cows to be milked at anytime without the active involvement of a human being. These systems provide even more opportunity for our “most important, 24 hour a day, dairy farm workers” to determine when they will eat, rest, visit the milking area or just “hang out with their pals.” This opportunity for more independent cow behavior results in less group activities by the entire herd. Because there are always animals resting, eating, drinking, being milked and going to and from the various areas there are significant impacts on the amount of space required for feeding, layout and interaction among the resting, eating, drinking and milking areas, work routines that assure clean and well bedded stalls and general freestall area maintenance. Management routines and the floor plan of a robotic barn may vary but the basic resting, eating, walking and drinking needs of the cow are still the same as required for any dairy in Pennsylvania. Meticulous attention to cow cleanliness and health care is essential.

Areas that are receiving special attention include:

  • Stall maintenance such as scrape back and bedding addition
  • Optimum feed space per animal since the whole heard does not eat at the same time
  • Cow traffic among the robot, feeding, watering and resting areas
  • Sensing of abnormal milk
  • Nutrition and health care programs tailored to these systems.

Drive down the road in Pennsylvania and you can pass farms with workers milking cows by hand or using traditional milking machine systems and other farms where cows are being milked around the clock by robotic milking systems. On these farms the cow chooses when she is ready to be milked, day or night, and the robotic milking machine under the constant supervision of a computer that can “call the boss” at the first sign of trouble. The expected result of all these systems is the same – fresh wholesome milk!

Robert Graves, Agriculture and Biological Engineering Extension