Nov. 28 2014 05:00 AM

Technology is relentlessly eroding the need to attach machines by hand.

robotic milker

Little by little, cow milking is evolving from manual to automated. Not just for small herds, but for everyone.

Adoption of robotic milking technology, whether as individual "box" units or as automated rotaries, is a fast-growing trend being driven by computers, software, generational changes, and lifestyle choices . . . but especially by declining labor supply.

"No one wants to retire as a milker. There's no excitement in that for a young person or for anyone," says Peter Langebeeke, president of Lely North America Inc., a division of the world's largest robotic milking machine manufacturer.

The company had sold about 100 units worldwide when he joined it in 1997. Today, it has 20,000, including what is fast approaching 1,000 units in the U.S. alone. Most have gone to dairies with 250 cows or less, but Langebeeke says that as the robot trend has picked up speed, a great deal of interest is coming from big herds.

"There are people milking 50,000 cows who have already gotten their feet wet [with limited use of robots], and there are others who are thinking about milking 2,000 to 6,000 cows entirely with robots," he explains. "There are a lot of people today who are making plans for robots."

Their attention has been drawn to the constant evolution of robotic milking capability. Initially, a single "box" unit was able to collect 4,000 pounds or so of milk per day. Now it's 5,000 pounds, and Langebeeke says 6,000 pounds is close in sight.

Robots' data collection abilities have seen a similar increase, "and what we do with the data is certainly a lot different than even just 10 years ago," he says. "Data collection has always been there, but now we combine it with sensors that look at milk conductivity, body temperature, body weight and milking frequency, and software algorithms that conclude something may be wrong with this cow and tell the farmer, you'd better check her."

All are trends that he predicts will continue in the future, although there is a limit.

"One hundred cows per box per day [versus about 65 today] is probably a stretch. We're still working with live animals here, so we're limited to what is possible. Software will keep getting better to make attachment faster, but at the end of the day, we have to rely on how fast that cow will let her milk flow."

But Langebeeke says the ultimate reason why the robotic milking trend will continue is the constant decline in labor supply, the transition of farm operation from parents to children, and changing attitudes about how things can be done.

"In the time I have been involved with robots, I can see from generation to generation that there are not many who are going to keep milking cows the way we know it today," he explains. "The robot adoption curve might slow down because early adopters already have them, but we're seeing a strong desire from larger dairies in the world to go with them. So, I don't really see a slowdown for robots anytime soon."

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The author has served large Western dairy readers for the past 37 years and manages Hoard's WEST, a publication written specifically for Western herds. He is a graduate of Cal Poly-San Luis Obispo, majored in journalism and is known as a Western dairying specialist.