WOOSTER, Ohio — The notion of milking cows with a robot, let alone one named “Lely Astronaut 3,” might remind some milk producers of science fiction shows like Star Wars or Star Trek.
There is no known robotic milker currently installed in Ohio, but these sleek, high-tech machines are tugging on the barn doors of some of the state’s most progressive dairies, and the seemingly fictional concept is proving to be a science rooted in efficiency and increased productivity.
Officials with Lely, a Netherlands-based company with locations around the world, hope to install the state’s first two robotic units within a couple weeks at an unannounced farm west of Columbus.
Lely representatives visited W.G. Dairy Supply in Creston, Ohio, Sept. 30, where they welcomed the newly licensed Lely robotics dealer and demonstrated how robotic milking works.
(Scroll down to watch a video of how robotic milking works)
Farmers from around Wayne and surrounding counties, and even a few from outside the state, marveled at the massive machine as it simulated the process of robotic milking, adjusting to the standing location of each cow, cleaning the cows’ teats and attaching milkers — without hands and mostly without supervision.
Some said the machine may actually allow them to go on vacation once in a while and most agreed it would cut down on the time they spend each day milking cows.
Brand of choice
Dean Stoller, sales manager for W.G. Dairy, said he’s traveled to New York and Pennsylvania, where robotic milkers already are in use. Lely invented the robotic milker in 1992 and has continued to improve its use, Stoller said.
“They’ve taken it to the point where it is now, where it makes economical sense both for us as a dealer and the dairy farmer,” he said.
He figured the average farm worker can manually produce about $1 million worth of milk a year. With the robot, that doubles to $2 million.
“We’re basically doubling the efficiency of each employee on the dairy farm,” he said.
Efficiency and whether or not the machine is worth the investment appeared to be the biggest question on the minds of farmers at the demonstration.
The price varies, but is around $220,000 for the first machine and usually less for a second, because some of the components, such as the air compressor that powers the robot, can be used for multiple robots. One robot can handle about 60 cows.
Wayne County dairy farmer Brent Jentes and his family milk about 60 cows and would see it as a good investment, “if you can justify the price,” he said.
In addition to doubling per-worker production, Stoller said the milker also increases cow production, for several reasons.
First, Stoller claims the cows are more comfortable when milked by robots. When the pressure in their udder becomes too much, the cows enter the machine to be milked on their own will, usually two times a day and sometimes three or more.
Because the cow enters the milker herself, there’s little need for a holding pen, so cows are more comfortable and generally produce more milk, Stoller said.
And, unlike a human, the robot keeps its cool with the cows, and does not curse or become angry. “The (robotic) arm doesn’t get mad,” he joked.
The machine also gives special care to each udder, determining the appropriate amount of time to milk each quarter or teat, and thereby maximizing the amount collected, without over-milking.
Stoller said if anything, the current crisis in the milk market may add to the need for technology like robotic milking, because of increased efficiency and productivity.
“I would never wish for a situation like this to last, but I think it does lend to technology like this.”
Alfred Kamps, a Lely regional manager, said the benefits of robotic milking make sense, because they lower the cost of production. His company has sold about 8,000 of the units worldwide.
“It makes perfect sense,” he said. “It’s just a little tougher for farmers to get projects started in these days.”
Scott Stoller, an organic dairy farmer from Wayne County, said he was concerned what implications the technology could have for organic farmers. Lely representatives assured him organic farmers in other states are using the robots, and maintaining full organic certification.
“If a consumer would accept it, I think the cows would accept it,” the dairyman said.
Lely robotic milker video: