07 July 2009

Not SciFi – Robots handle Minnesota farm chores

I went to a meeting at a dairy farm near Little Falls, MN, where I watched a robot milk a cow. I have to admit that as an old farm boy, I’m easily impressed by cool machines. But this was really cool!

The dairy farmer who hosted the meeting is Greg Blaine. He’s a member of Land O'Lakes (who I work for) and a former state legislator. He’s had the milker for about six months, and he loves it.

Here’s a short history of milking cows. Cows used to stand in individual stalls in a barn, and the farmer would come with a stool and a pail. He (or she) would milk the cow by hand into the pail, then pour the milk into a bulk tank where it would be chilled and stored until a truck came to haul it to the processing plant. Then they invented milking machines. Twice a day, the farmer would bring the machine to each cow, in her stall, and attach the milker to her udder. The milk would flow immediately into a stainless steel pipeline and be pumped to the bulk tank and never be exposed to air. This is the system most farmers in my neighborhood used when I was growing up.

Then came milking parlors and free stall barns. The cows would lounge in an open barn and two or three times a day, they would be gently herded to a room where they would be milked in groups. But on Greg’s farm, the cows lounge in the open barn and go over to the robotic milker anytime they feel the urge to get milked.

We stood in Greg’s observation room for 30-45 minutes. There were usually one or two cows waiting to enter the milker, and very few times when it sat empty. There’s a really good web site called DairyFarmingToday if you want to know more. It has profiles on different size dairy farms in different regions of the country. There’s also a ‘Dairy Dictionary’ of common dairy terms, including milking machine and milking parlor, if you’re interested.

I didn’t get a good picture of the robotic milker in action. But you can see a video of a milker in action on the University of Wisconsin Extension web site.

One of the big problems for dairy farmers who are leaders in their industry is finding someone to get the work done while they’re at meetings. (We have a lot of meetings in the dairy industry.) It’s not uncommon for farmers to get phone calls from their workers during meetings. Greg’s phone rang during the meeting he hosted. I joked that at least we knew it wasn’t his milker calling. Turns out, the joke was on me. The robot automatically calls the farmer if a problem occurs with the milker. Greg says the robot speaks in a cyber-female voice. He and his wife, Michelle, call the robot Gilmore and the cyber-female voice is Gilmore’s secretary, Glenda.

As I looked at the cows in Greg and Michelle’s barn, doing what cows do (it’s a cliché but standing around chewing the cud), and occasionally ambling over to the robotic milker, I thought of the humorous ads about California happy cows. But they couldn’t be any happier than the black and white beauties I saw near Little Falls.

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