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Robot frees dairy family

The first robotic milker installed in the Dakotas is apparently working well.

Stuart and Brenda Plucker, Chancellor, S.D., report that milk production is up 5 pounds per cow per day since they installed a Lely Astronaut robotic milker in November.

Their cows’ somatic cell count is down. The lower numbers are better, reflecting healthier and cleaner cows.

The cows are milking themselves an average of 2.9 times per day. The Pluckers used to milk twice a day in a tiestall barn. Some dairies manually milk three times a day to increase production.

Only two of their 60 cows — the herd is mostly Guernseys — had to be culled because they didn’t want to go into the robot stall to be milked. They probably would have had to cull those cows for other reasons anyway, Stuart says.

The computer program that runs the robot is easy to use, Brenda reports.

Key Points

A robotic milker is working well at a South Dakota dairy.

Milk production is up; the somatic cell count is down.

Large and small dairies are looking at new technology.

The machinery also is easy to maintain, Stuart adds. Problems so far have been limited to damaged vacuum hoses. The robot worked well through the winter. Water didn’t start freezing in the robot stall, which is located in the freestall barn, until the outside air temperature dipped below minus 6 degrees F. The robot uses several gallons of water during each milking to flush lines and wash udders.

The Pluckers are impressed by the information that the robot provides. It reads the weight of the animal, the amount of milk produced, and the percent of fat and protein in the milk, and compiles a report.

“It’s like getting a DHIA [Dairy Herd Improvement Association] sheet every day,” Stuart says.

The robot is also helping the Pluckers identify cows coming into heat. A pedometer hangs from the cows’ necks. When a cow enters the stall, the robot downloads the pedometer data and graphs how much the cow is moving around between milkings. Spikes in activity correspond to heat cycles.

The robot has freed the Pluckers; they no longer need to be at the farm each morning and evening to milk.

“It gives us more time to do things as a family,” Brenda says, “and we’re not so tired.”

For example, on one Saturday in May they drove to Marshall, Minn., for a family graduation party and didn’t have to sandwich the trip between milkings. The robot will call Stuart’s cellphone if there’s a problem, and he can notify a friend or neighbor to check on the machine.

The robot cost approximately $200,000. Stuart figures it will take 10 years to recoup the investment.

“It sounds like a lot of money for a machine,” Stuart says. “But I compare it to a combine. A $200,000 combine harvests grain. The robot harvests milk.”

More robots

Rusty Hartje, of Gorter’s Clay and Dairy, Pipestone, Minn., installed the Pluckers’ robot. He says there’s growing interest in robotic milkers in the Dakotas and Minnesota. He expects more milk producers to put them in as milk prices improve. So far, most of the robots in the Midwest have gone into small and midsized dairies. But larger dairies are looking at them, too.

“We bought the robot with the idea that it would be like a hired hand,” Stuart concludes. “It has turned out to be a pretty good one.”

Unexpected reactions

Installing a robot to do the milking has caused some unexpected reactions among man and beast on the Plucker farm.

Two-year-old Skyler Roy Plucker sorely misses helping his parents milk cows in the tiestall barn.

“The computer doesn’t interest him,” Brenda says.

Copper, the dog, is “extremely” bored now that he can’t help herd the cows, Stuart says. The red heeler has started running up and down the freestall barn and nipping at the cows’ noses while they eat.

Stuart was puzzled by one of his own reactions to the robot. This winter he found himself in the house at the unheard of hour of 5 p.m. Usually, he was in the barn with the cows until about 8:30 p.m. Being done with chores early “was the weirdest feeling,” he says.

One cow named Monica has already figured out how to beat the robot, which dispenses pellets to match each cow’s milk production. Stuart has programmed the robot not to release feed if the cow that enters the stall has already given 80% to 90% of its daily production. Feeding more pellets at that point would be a waste of money. To get extra feed anyway, Monica follows a cow that doesn’t clean up all of her pellets into the stall.

“Cows always surprise me,” Stuart says.

— Lon Tonneson

ROBOT on duty: A cow checks out the robotic milker before entering the stall.

Contented: Stuart Plucker checks cows in the new freestall barn.

This article published in the June, 2011 edition of DAKOTA FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2011.