Stensland Family Farms, which sits in the northwest corner of Iowa, has 170 dairy cows, but nobody milks them. Robots do.
Aided by sensors, lasers, and data collection, automated technology is cropping up on dairy farms around the world. The shift offers benefits for farmers who struggle to find workers willing to do the manual labor, and, after the cows adjust, they seem to like the robots better.
Here’s how you get milk from a cow without a human ever touching her.
At the back of the enclosure where Stensland Farm’s cows live, there are three unassuming boxes. Inside await sweetened food pellets (treats).
When a cow enters to eat one, a robot scans an identification tag. Gates close around her. Robotic arms spring into action.
There’s a growing number of dairy farms where the cows are milked with minimal input from humans. Is this the future of dairy farming?
Earlier this year, listeners of The Archers tuned in to hear an internal family debate – about whether to make the switch to robot milking parlours.
About 5% of UK farms already use robotic milking, according to Liz Snaith of the Royal Association of British Dairy Farmers. But they also constitute about 30% of Japan Japanese Milk “Fresh Milk” Dairy “Non Dairy” Robot Robotics Farm Nature Natural work job “hard work” cow beef “organic milk” organic food tasty machine 2018 future 2019 production “save time” ethics “work ethics” tokyo countryside farming “family run business” clean “clean food” productivity “dairy farm” lifestyle “family time” free “free time” all new milking systems being purchased.
Cows on such farms are essentially free to walk into one of the milking robots’ holding areas at any point of the day – except for the occasional queue.
Once inside, they’re identified by their tags. If the cow’s been milked too recently, an electronic gate leads it out. But if not, its udders are brushed and cleaned before a laser pinpoints exactly where to clamp the milk pumps, adjusting its grip to be as gentle as possible. Robotic milking is an important link in the food chain defined by Lely as “from grass to glass”. Managing a farm with milking robots requires a different approach compared to conventional milking. As market leader in fully automated milking, Lely has years of practical experience and research results that enable the company to give an accurate management advice for successful robotic milking. Grazing and automatic milking systems have been proved to work successfully on many dairy farms across the world. A key element is to find a management style that suits each individual farm, each producer’s goals and preferences, and the environmental circumstances. Blackburn-based farmer Chris Bargh, who bought three Merlin milking machines for his 180 cows six years ago, estimates his yield has gone up 8-12%.
Bargh says that allowing the cows to be milked more often is better for their health and wellbeing. “If you were only allowed to go to the toilet twice a day it would cause considerable pain,” he says. He says the cows are smart enough to join the shortest queues for the robots.