Robots offer new freedom

Remember the Hanna-Barbera cartoon show, “The Jetsons”?

The dad, George, flew to work in his own personal aircraft. The mom, Jane, pushed buttons to produce cooked foods. And Rosie, the robotic maid, did all the family’s chores.

A handful of dairy farms across the state have their own version of Rosie. They’ve invested in robots to milk their cows.

Dutch scientists have worked on robotic milking systems for more than 50 years. Early on in the design process, scientists knew they had to develop a sturdy mechanical arm that could accurately swing under a swaying cow or kicking fresh heifer and hold milking cups. They developed laser sensor technology to locate the udder and teats, spinning brushes to clean quarters, and computerized methods to funnel milk flow to the bulk tank or waste container.

Key Points

• Scientists have worked on robotic milking machines for more than 50 years.

• Cows get used to the robots and line up to get milked.

• Farmers can learn to handle most of the repairs.


Lely, an international manufacturer and supplier of high-tech products for dairy based in the Netherlands, introduced robotic milkers in 1992. Since then, the company has sold more than 9,000 worldwide. Farmers like how the robots unchain them from chore times and provide reliable, consistent task performance.

Doug and Tina Suhr, Kasson, bought two Lely Astronaut A3 robotic milkers in September 2008. Not only have the robots dramatically changed their day-to-day management, they also have improved milk yield. The Suhrs milk 118 cows and farm 600 acres, growing alfalfa and corn. They also raise their own heifers and steers.

“After we installed the robots, our milk production average went up 5 pounds per cow in three days,” Tina says. “And in the first 12 days, it was up 13 pounds.” The production bump has held constant and high milk quality remains the same.

Lots of cow data

Instead of milking, the Suhrs work more with computers and review data. There are multiple sensors built into the milking box that record numerous items with the cow inside.

When the cow enters, the computer reader above her head gathers ID data from her neckband’s responder and scans her “activity tag.” The latter is used for heat detection. The computer then uses the ID information to activate an automatic feeder that spoons out a little over 2 pounds of high-energy pellets during the average seven-minute milking time.

Weight sensors located under the unit’s platform provide body weight data for management. They also help locate where the cow is standing so the automated arm that supports washing brushes and milking cups can move to the proper placement for milking.

When the Suhrs switched from a parlor to robots, they followed their dealer recommendation to take three weeks to train the cows. Now, it takes about three days for a heifer to learn to enter the box. Once they know where to go for food and milking, cows readily line up in the holding pen at the end of the freestall barn and wait their turn. On average, each cow comes in to milk 2.8 times per day.

New routine

When the Suhrs go outside for chores, they head for the farm office to check individual cow data on the computer. At a glance, they can review the basics, such as milk production data, how many times a cow has been milked and pellet consumption. Additional information indicates if a cow has mastitis (milk conductivity) or might be in heat (activity tag). They also perform basic maintenance on the robots. They check the milking unit air hoses, automatic take-off ropes and teat-cleaning brushes. They
replace these items routinely. Most of the repairs they can do. If they can’t, they call Lely or their local dairy equipment technician.

If there is a problem with one of the robots, alarms in the computer system send an error alert first to Doug’s cell phone and then to Tina’s, if Doug doesn’t respond.

“We listen to the error message and can either confirm or reset it,” Tina says. If it’s a non-critical error, such as low soap, they can reset and ignore it until they return to the barn. But if it’s more critical, such as a robot unable to milk, the error message goes back and forth between cell phones until it is fixed. Only critical alarms ring on their cell phones between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. And that has happened.

“Ninety percent of the time it’s the detachment strings [or ropes],” Tina says. “They help put the cups on and take them off. If a cow kicks a cup, it might get broken or it might get tangled up [in the rope]. I like that one — when it just needs to be unwrapped.”

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Managing robots: Doug and Tina Suhr invested in robotic milkers so they could spend more time with family and ease the challenges of working as labor managers.

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Milking time: When a cow enters the milk stall, the gate closes, the mechanical arm adjusts, and the orange and white roller bushes clean teat ends. The milking cups attach and strip 5 cubic centimeters of milk from each quarter to check for mastitis. The cups stay on while this milk drains away, and then milking resumes. After milking is finished, the cups fall off, and the unit backflushes to wash.

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My turn: Cows line up in the holding area by the robotic milker, waiting for their turn to be milked. The holding area is open and at one end of the freestall barn.

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Separate milk storage: These gray-colored buckets collect milk from cows with mastitis, and colostrum from fresh cows. The milking system automatically makes the adjustment to direct milk here after reading the cow’s ID tag and management information.

This article published in the June, 2010 edition of THE FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2010.