Robots proving their worth at milking time

Farming is increasingly viewed positively by the public in Yorkshire, according to the OnePoll survey commissioned by the National Farmers' Union.   Picture: Jane Coltman.
Farming is increasingly viewed positively by the public in Yorkshire, according to the OnePoll survey commissioned by the National Farmers' Union. Picture: Jane Coltman.

It is no secret that it is a challenging time for dairy farmers. With milk prices low, many farmers are going out of business or are having to find other ways to make a living.

For some, this means setting up farm shops or cafes, whilst others are increasing their herd sizes and purchasing milking robots — large machines that look like cow sized-metal boxes.

From a veterinary and health perspective, the robots give in depth information about individual cattle, including figures on mastitis and the number of milkings.

So how do they work? Each cow wears a unique tag that is detected as it engages with the robot. The robot becomes aware of the cow’s identity, which stage of her lactation cycle she is at and, with the assistance of weighing scales, how much feed she requires.

Feed drops into a trough as a laser beam scans her teats. A mechanical arm then moves under the cow, cleans the teats and attaches the milking cluster to each one.

Cattle have four teats, and a computer screen tells the farmer how much milk each quarter is producing. When each is empty, milking stops for that one, but continues for the remaining quarters, maximising productivity.

When milking is complete, the teats are dipped again and the cow is released.

How is this advantageous compared to conventional milking? Conventionally, cattle are milked two times a day. With robots, it is possible to increase to three times daily, increasing yields and profits.

It could also be argued that the welfare of the cattle is improved. The cows learn to use the robots so considerably less human input is required. As a result, cattle are generally calmer as they can wander in to be milked when necessary, rather than the more stressful process of being rounded up to walk through a milking parlour.

From a veterinary and health perspective, the robots give in depth information about individual cattle, including figures on mastitis and the number of milkings. This makes it a lot easier to detect and anticipate problems, and deal with them before they become a major issue. The information also assists with herd health plans, which is a much more preventative approach to bovine healthcare.

Using robots is not the solution for all herds. Each robot is expensive, becoming more economically viable when it serves up to 80 cattle. For smaller farms this isn’t viable, whereas for larger farms multiple robots have to be purchased.

However, for the farms that have them, they have proven to be a huge benefit.

By Kate Murphy, Vet