Udderly amazing: a self-milking cow

Bovines on a Wisconsin farm line up to use the milking robot, which could help America's small dairy farmers survive - and sleep late.

Sometimes, a farming technology changes the world: the iron plow, the cotton gin, the milking robot.

The milking robot?

Sure enough, the offspring of R2D2 are bringing the dairy barn into a Jetsons-like future.

That future is on display here in Omro, Wis., where farmer Peter Knigge no longer has to get up at 5 a.m. to milk his cows. Instead, the cows line up to milk themselves - with some automated assistance. All that's missing is a bovine named Astro.

Installed a year ago, his two robots milk cows 200 times a day, round the clock. And for the first time in 30 years of farming, this dairyman can stand and watch - or sleep in. The technology not only promises to take the drudgery out of milking, it could keep America's small dairy farms from going the way of the horse and buggy.

"Some will think of this as a milking factory," says Mr. Knigge, standing in his new $1 million barn. But "it's still a family dairy farm where we supply all the management and labor."

Farmers have installed 1,000 automatic milkers around the world, 800 in the Netherlands alone. Now, equipmentmakers such as Lely Canada (part of a Netherlands conglomerate) and Wisconsin-based Bou-Matic want to rev up sales in the US.

"Robotic milking is in its infancy," says Doug Reinemann, professor of biological systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin at Madison. But "there's a very high degree of interest among dairy operators in this technology, because it really improves the quality of life for the single family farm."

Since Knigge installed his robots 13 months ago, two other farmers and the University of Wisconsin have installed similar technology. The reason: Robots take over one of farmers' most onerous chores.

Life of a dairyman

Before robots, Knigge started milking his cows at 5 a.m., broke for breakfast at 8 a.m., and was back on the job with a late-afternoonmilking session that didn't end till 7 p.m.Not too stressful, you say? Try milking twice a day every day of the year. Cows can't miss a milking. If Knigge took a vacation, he had to find someone to take his place.

Now his schedule is more flexible. Under the new system, the cows determine for themselves when they should be milked. Pressure on their udders, plus the promise of a treat, lures them to stand in line. When the robot is ready, it opens a gate to the milking station, and the cow walks in. The machine swings a small platform under the cow's midsection and, using a laser, guides four red-capped suction tubes to each of the cow's four teats. When the milking is done, the robot automatically detaches, opens an exit gate, and the process begins again.

"Until you see it with your own eyes, you don't believe cows will milk themselves," Knigge says. Instead of twice a day, the cows get milked on average nearly three times a day. That not only produces 10 percent more milk per cow, it leads to healthier udders, scientists say.

Of course, it took some time - and lots and lots of pushing - to train the cows to use the new system. And it isn't foolproof. Periodically, a family member sweeps through the barn to get the laggards to move toward the machine. Also, the robot sometimes can't hook onto an udder.

If the machine fails to milk three cows in a row, it sounds a pager so someone can help. If a cow has been milked too recently, the machine is smart enough not to try to milk it again. Such technology doesn't come cheap.

Farm economics

To build a three-robot barn capable of milking 150 cows costs a third more than a conventional milking parlor, estimates Mike Schutz, a dairy specialist at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Ind.

Knigge's facility is even more automated, with special equipment that moves and stores cow manure. This barn represents the biggest gamble of his farming career.

Knigge took the plunge to bring his son onto the operation. It's a situation familiar to many small dairymen: They can't afford to give away their farms to their children, because they need the retirement money. But their children can't afford to run small operations if they owe a lot of debt.

Many operators decide to expand so both generations can live off the farm while the children earn enough to buy the farm.

Knigge's dilemma was how much to expand. Using robots, he could move from 45 cows to 140. With outside labor, he'd have to milk some 300 or more to justify the extra expense. "We were terrified of the hired-labor part," he says. So, at Knigge's urging, the family stuck its neck out with the new technology.

So far, so good. "We're still learning the management," Knigge says, which continues to require plenty of hours in the dairy barn caring for the cows, mixing feed, and so on. As long as milk prices stay above $12 per hundredweight, the family will be able to pay back its loan in 10 years, he says.

It's too early to tell whether the robots will prove more helpful to small farmers like Knigge or large operators with hundreds or even thousands of cows, says Rick Rugg, market manager for Bou-Matic. But "I think dairying is going to be more appealing now with this robotic facility.... This is the next wave."

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