You won’t find any milking stools or buckets in the milking parlors on the Bad Axe, Michigan, dairy farm of Ashley and Eric Kennedy.
Six years ago, the Kennedys decided that robots could do the work of humans, even on something as traditional and time-tested as milking cows.
“We struggled to find employees who wanted to milk in a parlor. It’s not the easiest job, and it’s really monotonous,” Ashley Kennedy explained. “Our old equipment also was going to need an upgrade soon, so it made sense for us to make the leap to robots.”
Here’s how robotic milking works:
The cow, on her own schedule, goes into the milking box. If the robot determines she is able to be milked, it moves on to the next step. If it isn’t her time, the robot will let her out of the box.
“If the cow can be milked, the arm starts to move under her and a set of brushes come out to clean the cow’s teats,” she said. “The brushes disinfect the cow’s teats with a peroxide solution. Then the brushes go away and the laser begins to do its job.”
The laser scans the teats to locate them. Once the location is known, each milk cup is attached to individual teats.
“The cow is then milked while she is being fed a specially formulated pellet that delivers energy and vitamins while she is being milked,” she explained. “As each quarter on the cow is emptied, the milk cup is removed; and once they are all off, the teats are sprayed with a disinfectant iodine. Then the cow is released into the barn, where she can spend the rest of the day as she chooses.”
The robotic milkers are time- and labor-saving technologies that gives the Kennedys a better work-life balance.
“They give our family and employees flexibility to fit in personal time and family events easier,” Ashley Kennedy said. “The robots have taken a great deal of the physical tax on our bodies that milking in a parlor was starting to take.”
Each cow is equipped with a collar that collects data much like a tracker humans wear on their wrists to record steps and physical activity. The collar records the cow’s activities and helps indicate the animal’s overall health.
“The collar also has a microphone on it, and it counts the minutes of the day she is eating and chewing her cud,” she noted. “Those things directly influence the health of the cow. Only a healthy, happy, content cow will chew her cud.”
Once in the milk box, the robot also reports data back to the Kennedys.
“We get over 100 data points on her, from milk temperature – which can tell us if she has a fever – to weight, milk quality and so much more,” she said. “It all goes into a computer program that put it in charts, graphs and lists so I can look at it and see if a cow needs to be actively checked on.”
And what was the time frame for the cows to get used to robots?
“The first couple days were rough; but honestly, I think it was harder for us to adapt to not having a rigid schedule than it was for the cows,” she said.