Dairy Channel: Robotic milking systems have come long way

While I was growing up in Columbus, my Dad was working at a research institute and studying for his doctorate in metallurgical engineering (at Ohio State, of course). I have often wondered how all the math skills in a family could have gone to one person, but they did.

To assist with long and tedious calculations, he would pull out the slide rule to help. Today a student would say a slide-what??? and pull out the multi-function engineering calculator or a financial calculator that they picked up at the bookstore for $30.

A few months ago a large envelope came in the mail from an unknown feed company. I was just about to throw it away when I noticed that it was lumpy. Inside was a spiffy little calculator that has a spring loaded cover over the number display screen.

It took the 8-year-old kid to say “..but Mom, if you press the button while it is sitting flat on the table, it even pushes the calculator up so it is ready to use.” The real hoot is that once you show this feature to anyone from 3 to 95 years old, they will sit and play around with it for about five minutes.

The point is, the road of the calculator, from a $1,000 item to an affordable tool used by millions to free as a promotional item looks a lot like the road the development of robotic milking has taken over the last decade or so.

Now, before the equipment manufacturers have a heart attack, I think the comparison will diverge a bit short of finding coupons for free systems in boxes of milking system filters.

Come a long way.

At the Northeast Ohio Dairy Management Conference in Canton last week, Joe Huey of Alfa Laval, one of two companies currently working on installing robotic milking systems in North America, gave conference participants a peek at their current system.

Comparing this system to three different systems I have seen in the last six years was really exciting.

In 1993 and 1994, the Dairy Excel Team took two study trips. The first was to the USDA experiment station in Maryland where we saw one robotic milking system. The second trip was to the Netherlands where we saw two other systems.

My conclusions at that time were “early calculator,” a lot of potential, but a long way from being a practical, affordable tool for dairymen.

The early systems.

Each system had huge amounts of control equipment that took up volumes of space. Someone had to be there to monitor equipment nearly around the clock, and stalls were cow-unfriendly, to say the least.

We watched one system try to attach a milker four times before finally giving up and kicking the cow out, unmilked.

Systems required cows with ideal udder and teat conformation to have half a chance to get the milking units attached. Milking units looked like bigger, bulkier versions of what you put on your cows each day.

Milk quality was a problem with cleaning and drying of the cow and the milking system a continual challenge. Cooling milk rapidly was also problematic.

One of the nastiest features was the “rising floor.” In one system, the cow walked onto a metal platform. To assure that her legs stayed apart so the unit could get in under the udder and not get kicked at, the floor, which was split in the middle, rose up in the center, wedging her feet between the angled floor and the wall of the stall.

If they hoped to give the cow a feeling of comfort and “sure footing,” they failed dismally.

Change for the better.

So what was so interesting about this newer system? According to Joe Huey, the DeLaval engineers got a wake-up call from an octogenarian dairyman who advised them to “…get all this stuff out from under my cows…”

Fortunately, this sage advice prevailed over the millions of dollars already invested and potential ego concerns (the dairyman reportedly had a third-grade formal education in addition to a tremendous amount of cow sense.)

“Getting all this stuff out…” resulted in a unit that is designed to look like a milker you would find in your barn today. Each teat cup has its own hose and is attached and detached separately from the other teat cups. This feature keeps the bulk out and allows the unit to milk cows without perfect udders and teat placement.

A completely separate cup washes, dries and preps each teat before the milking teat cups are attached. Each quarter’s production is also monitored individually for volume and quality.

The newer systems also appear to function well without additional rooms full of equipment and controls. Of course, there are equipment and controls, but these appear to integrate well with other herd management systems in a machine room and a herd management office.

Dairymen will need training to manage the system. A monitoring system is set up to alert the necessary people if the milking system has problems. An annual service contract is part of the required maintenance for the milking system.

DeLaval’s VMS (Voluntary Milking System) calls for one unit per 50 to 60 cows. Production levels will influence how many cows can pass through a unit in a 24-hour period. Cows typically pass through the system at just under three times per day.

In the milking stall, a cow receives a portion of her grain and then is allowed to eat forages when she passes out of the system. An additional computer feeding system can deliver the rest of the cow’s grain in the forage feeding area.

The jury is still out on this one. I don’t know too many dairyman who yearn to go back to their days of computer feeders!

Likely to mean new barn.

Retrofitting a voluntary milking system into an existing facility may, or more likely, may not work. One way gates and cow-ID controlled gates keep cows flowing through the eating, resting, milking, eating, resting, milking system.

You also don’t want to fill in the old parlor pit as they recommend that fresh and mastitic cows be milked separately. The robotic system will not be able to handle as many cows if it is slowed down by a thorough washing after mastitic or fresh cows are milked.

At $180,000+ per stall, (not including barn renovations) these systems are still out of reach of the mainstream dairyman, but they are well on their way to becoming a realistic alternative to traditional milking systems.

My husband, Steve, decided that the NASCAR sponsorship model might be one way to subsidize the installation of the system. He could sell advertising space on the unit itself and on a barn uniform. If you are one of the “early installers” it is highly likely a lot of people would come through the barn to look at the system, making it a good buy for advertisers.

Maybe in another five or 10 years…

(The author is the northeast Ohio district dairy specialist with OSU Extension. Send comments or questions in care of Farm and Dairy, P.O. Box 38, Salem, OH 44460.)

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