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Robotic milking tools increase dairy output

MOUNT VERNON, Wash. – The 105 milking cows at Alan Mesman’s organic dairy in Mount Vernon are getting along just fine with their new milkers – two computer-assisted, laser-guided hydraulic robot arms that know each of them personally.

Mesman finished an 11-week installation of his high-tech milking system by DeLaval in early November, making his the first farm between Seattle and Canada to install a state of-the-art system manufactured right down the road.

The system milks cows 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, and can do so with little human interaction.

Instead of relying on desperate written recordings of diets and production, or looking to see which cows look to be in heat for insemination, the data points Mesman needs to run an efficient dairy are logged on a local server and computer.

“It gives us better herd management, to be able to take better care of cows – to get them dried off at the right time, how much grain to give them, whether they ate it, if they’re pregnant and how far along they are, how much they’re milking. It’s a stream of information you just don’t get with the old parlour system,” Mesman said.

His son Ben monitors and selects cows to be removed from the herd to go to the vet or breeder from his smartphone, in Wisconsin.

The system works like this: cows move from wandering around in the pasture or feeding on silage in the barn to a gate that leads to the two milking stations.

A reader on the gate scans an identification chip in the cows’ ears to find out if they have permission to milk. Mesman said cows can be scheduled to milk every six to 12 hours depending on their production.

The cow moves into a metal stable and is again scanned to confirm identity.

Grain drops down in front of the cow to keep her still and supplement pasture diets. A metal bracket presses against the cow’s rear, telling the robot arm approximately where the cows’ udders are located.

A 6-foot steel boom swings down from outside the stable on the parlour side. From the bottom, a hydraulic-powered arm uses a three dimensional laser camera to locate each individual teat in a few deft sweeps, then washes each with a mixture of iodine and soap.

Mesman said any problems the robots log in locating individual cows’ teats are recorded until optimum placement is found – the best fit becomes a baseline for future reference.

The arm then sights and attaches vacuum lines and monitors milk flow from each teat. When pressure drops below a certain amount, the line drops and is reeled back into the machine.

Cows are kicked out with a wash cycle that cleans the deck, and the next cow moves in. The whole process takes between five and eight minutes.

Mesman said milk production is up approximately 6 pounds per cow, per day.

The system was built at the DeLaval manufacturing plant in Mount Vernon, one of 16 manufacturing facilities worldwide for the Swedish company.

The facility uses a lean production system based on the Toyota model to turn around complex, custom orders of the stainless steel system in as little as eight weeks.

Mesman said although he is the first in the region to install a DeLaval system, farms in most other parts of the U.S. and across Canada and Europe have been using automated milking systems for years.

“This robotic milking thing seems so cutting edge here, but in Canada, Europe, this is common,” Mesman said.