When I organised to do some dairy EMS, the farmer told me he doesn’t work at “ridiculously early hours” because he has milking robots. It sounded incredibly sci-fi and I didn’t really know what to expect, but when he first showed me around the farm and explained how they work, I was extremely impressed.
The robot recognises each individual by an electronic tag, which is strapped around one leg and also acts as a pedometer. Everything is completely automated – there isn’t even any need for manual attachment of the cows teats; the robots not only have built in lasers which are used to locate them, but also remember the rough position of them for each cow. The robots are programmed to milk the desired amount for each cow. The cows are free to come to the robots for milking whenever they want, but if they return too soon to be milked again, the robot will allow them to pass through without being milked.
The robots dramatically reduce the incidence of mastitis, since the clusters are much more hygienic for the cows than those in a parlour. They’re automatically washed in between each cow, in addition to the teats themselves being cleaned both before and after milking. The number of foot problems is reduced since there is no queueing to get into a parlour. There is less strain on the udder because the cows are not limited to specific times for milking. Milking is also much more efficient, since each quarter of the udder is treated individually, so no teat is under or over-milked.
When a cow calves, the robot is programmed to begin milking her, in small amounts to start with. For the first couple of milkings, the robot sends the milk to a separate tank, so the colostrum can be given to the newborn calf.
Lots of data is provided by the robot. The pedometer gives a minute-by-minute recording of activity level, which can be used to see when the cow is bulling, and so indicates when to AI the cow. The robot itself also conducts a basic analysis of the milk produced by each cow, which gives an immediate indication of quality and can provide an early warning for conditions such as mastitis, even before clinical signs appear.
There’s also obvious advantages for the farmer. Working hours are much better – no early morning or late night milking. Such a decrease in the labour needs means that there’s much money to be saved that would be spent employing staff.
However, all of this comes at a cost. The big question is whether the huge initial cost for a robot outweighs the time and money they save the farmer. The robots are computerised so a steep learning curve would need to be undertaken to get used to the technology, which isn’t something that all farmers would be prepared to do.
Of course, the sceptics will also be asking “what if it goes wrong?” After all, computers aren’t flawless.
The farmer I’ve been working with has two robots, and says that they do have occasional faults, but he always has the second one as a back up to be used while the other is being repaired. The technicians are on call 24/7, so the robots usually get fixed quickly. He said that, only once, both robots went down due to a fault with the computer system. It was brief, but while the repair was going on, the old milking parlour was used.
The milking robot is certainly a very clever piece of kit. Robots have slowly become more popular over the last few years as the machinery has become more reliable. But will there be a major shift towards robotic milking in the future? Will the younger generations of farmers be more inclined to use robots in order to maintain a lifestyle with better working hours? I think that robots are the next step in the evolution of dairy farming, but it’s impossible to tell how long it’ll take for them to be used by the vast majority.