Rise of the machines

Robot milkers revolutionize dairy farms

Mike Wagner

Monona dairy farmer
Mike Wagner Monona dairy farmer

There ain’t nobody here but us cows.

CALMAR — That variation on Louis Jordan’s “chickens” lyric aptly described the scene this past Monday at the Northeast Iowa Community College Dairy Center in which scores of cows more or less milked themselves.

With no staff in attendance for at least 90 minutes, the cows took turns eating, resting and willingly submitting to a pair of robot milkers.

“Robot milkers have become quite the phenomenon,” said Dave Brown, chief of the state’s Dairy Products Control Bureau.

Brown said 85 robots are now milking cows on more than 40 Iowa farms, “and they are gaining momentum.”

Iowa State University Extension dairy specialist Larry Tranel said he expects robot installations to increase at an annual rate of at least 20 percent.

Iowa’s early adopters have been highly satisfied with their transition to automated milking, according to a 2012 ISU study conducted by Tranel and others.

Though the $200,000 machines are commonly called robot milkers, Monona dairy farmer Steve Wagner prefers “automated milking system.”

“When you think of ‘robot,’ you picture a machine going around to each cow. Actually the cows come to the machine,” said Wagner, who with his son Mike milks 135 Holsteins with a pair of robots.

“This is the most rewarding product I’ve sold in my 32 years in the business,” said Mike Fitzgerald, whose Elkader-based company, Fitzgerald Inc., has sold and installed 20 robotic milker systems in Iowa, including the one at the Dairy Center.

“It liberates dairy farmers” from the most time- and labor-intensive aspects of their job, he said.

About 700 people attended a March 27 open house to showcase the Dairy Center’s new robotic milking system.

“We heard the word ‘wow’ a lot that day,” Dairy Center Coordinator Megan Kregel said.

“Even retired dairy farmers had a hard time believing that could be done.”

The cows, of their own volition, step into a machine that incorporates sensors, lasers and computers to perform a personalized task that many thought could be accomplished only by conscientious people.

A sensor “reads” a transponder around the cow’s neck to identify her among the scores of others in the herd. A soapy brush scrubs her udder and cleans and massages her teats to stimulate milk flow.

Red laser beams guide suction units onto each of her four teats.

While she relishes the high-protein, molasses-coated snacks that enticed her into the milking stall, the robot withdraws her milk — all the while recording data about her health and the quality and volume of her milk.

When her milk flow slackens, the machine withdraws and rinses its suction cups, opens a gate to let her out and opens another gate to let in the next willing participant.

The Dairy Center began milking with two new robots on Dec. 10. For a week before the start-up, the cows’ regular ration was topped with the tasty pellets to accustom them to the treats used to entice them into the robotic stalls.

“We like to say that the cows eat their candy bar in the robot, and their salad at the bunk,” Kregel said.

The Holsteins milked by the robot produce about 10 more pounds of milk per day than their counterparts in the adjacent parlor milking area — an increase of about 11 percent, according to Kregel.

The Wagners said their daily per cow production has increased by more than 30 pounds since they installed their robots on Nov. 2, 2011. The robots also enabled them to increase the size of their milking herd from 80 cows to 135.

“Without the robots, we would need hired help. The robots enable us to manage cows rather than people,” said Mike Wagner, whose smartphone, using data provided by the robots’ computers, alerts him each morning to which cows need attention.

That data typically includes the “late list” — cows that are overdue to be milked — and cows that are ready to be bred.

Their smartphones also let the Wagners know about any robot system problems.

While the robots free them to get out of the barn, Steve Wagner said he does not like to travel more than two hours away when he is on call.

One of the robot system’s many strengths is its consistency.

“Everything is done exactly the same way time after time, and cows like that,” Mike Wagner said.

Both Wagners said their cows are happier, healthier and more productive since the robots were installed.

“They’re smart animals. They like being free to do as they please,” Steve Wagner said.

ISU Extension’s Tranel said robot milkers reduce labor and improve the dairy operators’ quality of life, primarily by giving them more time to spend with their families.

Tranel, who developed a spread sheet to help dairies evaluate the cost-effectiveness of robots versus other practices, said producers need to realize an 8 percent to 10 percent increase in milk production to justify the increased expense.

A 2012 ISU Extension survey of Iowa dairies using robot milkers found a high degree of satisfaction with the automated systems.

Surveyed farmers reported an average of 12 percent more cows milked with the robots, a 12 percent increase in per cow milk production, a 75 percent reduction in labor and a 36 percent reduction in the somatic cell count — an indicator of milk quality and cow health.

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