December 19, 2001 | By: Aimee D. Heald
LEXINGTON, KY.

Milking is the most important management task dairy farmers perform. The success of their dairy operation depends on the quantity and quality of milk the cows produce, and how efficiently that milk is moved from cow to consumer.

Farms milking 100 or fewer cows, operated by single family units, are common in Kentucky. Often these cows are in outdated and depreciated facilities. Milking comprises about half of the labor expended on most small dairy farms. Finding a way to make milking easier and less repetitive could benefit these small farms the most.

“In a number of industries, robots have taken over jobs that are repetitive,” said José Bicudo, agricultural engineer at the University of Kentucky College of Agriculture. “Automatic milking technology could potentially allow a farm to expand to 100 to 150 cows without hiring outside labor. The technology has been shown to be cost effective. Preliminary estimates showed milking costs with robots are between $1.30 and $2.00/cwt for a 70 to 140 cow herd.”

Bicudo said robotic, or the automatic, milking system (AMS), has gained rapid acceptance in Europe. About 700 European dairy herds are automatically milked today. In Canada, where herd sizes are similar to Kentucky, more than 15 farms already have adopted AMS technology. Currently in the United States, four systems are operating in Wisconsin and a couple in Pennsylvania. These systems were installed as part of a pilot program until the FDA comes up with specific regulations concerning milk production and AMS.

“The system is designed to allow cows to choose how often they are milked each day,” Bicudo said. “Actually, the average number of milkings per cow each day in the automatic system is between 2.6 and 2.8.”

According to Bicudo, the computer identifies the cow using an electronic tag, then determines if the cow will be milked. Once the computer approves the cow for milking, the cow enters a milking stall and an electronic feeder dispenses feed as the side-opening gate closes.

Sophisticated laser technology tells the teat cups exactly where the teats are located. After the robotic milking system cleans the teats, the machine removes the fore milk from each quarter and measures milk flow from each teat. When milk flow drops below a preset level, the vacuum shuts down, all cups are removed, the teats and teat cups are sprayed, the milk is measured and pumped away and the cow leaves the stall. The robot’s computer system saves all the milking information for producers to view at their convenience.

Bicudo was quick to point out adopting AMS will require changes in the way farms are operated. He said important issues like farm management, housing, milk quality, cow welfare and health must properly be approached when introducing the technology on dairy farms.

“If automatic milking technology becomes widely adopted in Kentucky, it will revolutionize the work routines on dairy farms and contribute to a significant improvement in dairy farmer’s quality of life,” Bicudo said. “Another potential benefit is improved economic and environmental quality, as well as a resurgence in social vitality of rural communities associated with the revival of a diverse and thriving family-dairy farm sector.”

The first North American Conference on Robotic Milking will be held in Toronto, Canada March 20 through 22. Conference details are available at:http://www.ontariodhi.com/robotics. For more information on AMS technology, visit:http://www.bae.uky.edu/~jbicudo/robot_milk.htm