Robotic Milking

Published on Wed, 09/30/2009 - 11:43am

Augie and Mike Baumann of Buffalo Center, IA manage their 240-cow dairy herd a little differently than most producers. The majority of their Holsteins roam freely in one of four large pens in their 160x300’ cross-ventilation barn. Most of their time is spent either munching feed from concrete bunks or resting in individual free stalls complete with dual-bladder waterbeds.

Whenever the urge strikes them, the cows amble to a milking station. A crew of four stands ready 24 hours a day, seven days a week. Each cow decides when and how often she needs to be milked.
“Since the cows are milked so often, there are no tight bags. We have almost no mastitis,” says Mike. He notes milk yield is about 10% higher than in traditionally managed dairies, while milk quality is as good if not better.
Perhaps, but labor costs must be astronomical, right?
Actually, the workload is comparatively light. The Baumanns’ milking “crew” consists of four A3 Astronaut robotic milking machines from Lely, an international corporation specializing in agricultural products.
Augie has been raising replacement heifers since the 1970’s, primarily registered Holsteins. Until recently, however, all cows owned by the Baumanns were milked elsewhere. “We had cows custom milked at five or six different farms,” Mike says. “I wanted to get them home under one roof.”
Having grown up milking cows by hand, Augie wasn’t enthusiastic about taking on the responsibilities of traditional parlor milking. “I didn’t want to be tied to a milking schedule,” he said in an AP interview this summer. “That’s no way to live.”
The Baumanns learned of the robotic milking option while attending an industry trade show in Sioux Falls, SD. Through further research they discovered that while the machines are made in the Netherlands there is a large Lely distribution center in Pella, IA as well as a local distributor in Pipestone, MN about 2½ hours from their farm.
After touring a working robotic dairy in Wabasso, MN the Baumans decided to make the investment. Their new milking facility began operations in late February.
Cows are given a fairly low-energy total mixed ration in their feed bunks. Higher-energy pellets released into a trough at one end of the milking station encourage the cows to enter.
Each milking station is accessed by a narrow chute with a metal gate. The gate closes when a cow enters the station, preventing multiple cows from attempting to enter simultaneously. The machine features an overhead scanner that detects a collar worn by each cow.
Once the cow enters the station a large robotic arm cleans the teats with rotary brushes. After the brushes withdraw they are automatically rinsed and treated with disinfectant. An optical scanner guides teat cups into place. Teat coordinates are recorded in the computer, increasing efficiency of future milkings. “Every time she’s in there, it’s faster,” Mike explains. 
Milk from each quarter is tested for blood and colostrums as well as assessed for conductivity. Colostrums and abnormal milk are diverted to separate chambers.
Teat cups drop off automatically when milk flow is no longer detected. When all four quarters are milked the gate opens and the cow walks out. The pumping system flushes itself while the teat cups are automatically steam-cleaned and rinsed. Within minutes the station is ready for the next animal.
New cows adapt to the system readily. “We push them in three times a day for three days,” Mike says. Although the occasional animal needs to be walked in for a week or two, most are entering the milker on their own by day three.
In fact, the only problem encountered initially was hungry cows accessing the system too often. “We had a cow that went through 11 times,” Mike says. The Baumanns were able to reprogram the robot to release recently-milked cows without activating the milking system or dropping the pellets.
The barn and robotic milkers keep the cows comfortable and content, Mike says. “You don’t hear a cow beller out there. I put a cow in the pasture, you open up the gate and they run to the barn.”
When the system is functioning properly the only human labor required is to occasionally hose down the floor of the milker and the external components of the robotic arm. “Milking doesn’t take up any time at all,” Mike says.
If the system isn’t functioning properly, the computer is programmed to call Mike’s cell phone and alert him to the problem. “You can leave the farm and not worry about it,” he says. “It’s being watched.”
The A3 Astronauts watch over the herd in another way as well. Software programs track details such as weight, breeding cycle status, milk yield, milk quality, and milking time for each animal. Information can be viewed on a screen attached to each unit and is also fed to a central computer database accessible from Mike’s office.
Although the Baumanns continue to participate in DHIA for marketing purposes, much of the same information is already available on a daily basis through the Lely software. Mike is hopeful that as robotic milking grows the computer system will eventually be made directly compatible with the DHI registry.
While Augie grew up milking cows Mike had never done so until about a year ago. He’s experienced just enough milking by hand to give him a true appreciation for his robots, however. Mike began moving cows into the barn before the robots were completely installed. “They started calving,” he explains, “so I ended up milking 12 cows in the back with an old surge milker.”
Assisting the Baumanns is herdsman Andy Jefson, who lives on the property, and Garry Farrow, who helps with feeding, cleaning and trucking. Farrow also purchases and feeds out many of the Baumann bull calves.
Unlike Mike, Jefson grew up on a working dairy and remained active in the business until his father sold out about four years ago. He’s glad for the opportunity to be back in the industry. “For the two years I worked construction I just missed it too much. I missed working with cows.”
Having experienced traditional parlor milking, Jefson is impressed with the robotic system. “I think robots are going to prove out,” he says. “When you think of how we used to milk, it’s amazing.”
The Baumanns’ amazing system has attracted a lot of attention. Visitors arrive on a daily basis, often unannounced. “We don’t advertise,” Mike says, “but they come.”
The family takes their newfound notoriety in stride. In fact, they held an open house in their new facility on August 28. “Everybody wants to see the place,” Mike says, “so we thought we’d let them hammer in all at once.”
Although the Baumann dairy is much different than most other operations, their biggest struggle so far has been one that’s common to all producers right now: low milk prices. Each robot cost about $160,000 in addition to the expense for the barn and other equipment. “Milk was $20 per hundred-weight when we built,” Mike says. “Now it’s $10-11. That’s a big difference.”
Fortunately, the Baumanns have a diverse operation. Mike farms enough ground to feed the family’s cows and still have grain to market. Both he and Augie remain active in the replacement heifer business.
Having the robotic dairy has actually created a new marketing niche for the Baumanns. “Dad’s selling robot-trained cows,” Mike says. “Nobody ever thought of that before.”
Producers can come to the Baumann dairy to choose first-calf heifers already accustomed to the Astronaut system. “They bring them to their barn and they already know what the robot is,” Mike says, “so away they go.”
While the robotic milkers already make life easier for the Baumanns, Mike is looking forward to the arrival of his next labor-saving device. His A3 Astronauts will soon be joined by another innovation from Lely, a robotic manure scraper.