Robotic milking: the gentle touch of machine on moo?

FutureDairy project leader Dr Kendra Kerrisk is something of an icon in her field of milking automation and so it’s very exciting to have her write this guest post for Milk Maid Marian. There are already a handful of robotic dairies in Australia and this looks to be the way of the future. Ironically, Kendra explains, it may allow dairy farmers to spend even more “quality time” with their cows.

Robotic milking is a relatively new concept for Australian dairy farmers even though our European counterparts are well accustomed to the idea. It is a technology that I have had the honour of working with for 10 years now and there a lot to be send for this new way of milking cows.

To the less informed, the concept may conjure up images of metal on flesh that are less appealing than the tender human touch. In fact the contact with the cow is every bit at gentle as the conventional approach and one of my fondest observations is that robotic milking farmers have an increased ability to enjoy the time that they spend with their cows when they no longer have to attach milking cups to every teat of every cow twice every day. It seems that the saying “quality not quantity” has a place when it comes to farmer/cow interactions.

Robotic milking farmers are unanimous in their opinion that the technology creates a farm system that results in very relaxed and laid back cows. The idea of robotic milking is that milking occurs 24 hours per day and that the process is voluntary (i.e. the cow completes the process without human intervention). Whenever I spend time with visitors at a robotic dairy (either our research facility or on commercial farms) the visitors are always deeply influenced by how quite and calm the milking process is with robots.

With robotic milking the cow chooses when to be milked and moves around the farm system at ‘cow pace’.

Cows in paddock with robotic milker in background

The cows are moving one by one hoorah hoorah…

Whilst I have been involved in researching the application of robotic milking I have also had the pleasure of being involved with many commercial farmers as they adopt this new way of farming. The farmer must learn a new management style whereby the farm is managed in such a way that the cows makes choices that suit the farmer and the farm targets. Cows move around the farm to gain access to incentives and by default can find themselves at the dairy for milking when their time is due.

Cow walks through robotic gates

With robotic milking the cows bring themselves to the dairy (they even operate specially designed one-way gates themselves) and take themselves back to the paddock.

The concept of robotic milking is creating a work environment that allows farmers and their employees to focus on higher level management tasks. In this manner they have the opportunity to manage their herd through an increase in the level of real time data that becomes available to them allowing them to focus on individual cows that require attention. The real attraction is the more flexible working hours that reduce the need for the early morning starts and commitment to milking cows twice a day. And the bonus for the cows is that they can now manage themselves in a manner that best suits them as individuals or as social groups.

Robotic dairy

These ladies know exactly how to manage the system to ensure they don’t miss out on the “treats” and “rewards” that are available to them.

Cows are creatures of habit and they truly appreciate a predictable environment. Robotic milking is exactly that and the outcome is a herd of cows that are very easy to work with since they become extremely calm and ‘chilled out’. With all of my experience in the area of robotic milking I have absolutely no doubt that this is a way of farming that is going to be increasingly adopted on commercial dairy farms in Australia and around the world.

Possibly one of the greatest bonuses is that I reckon dairy farming is going to increase in appeal with the younger generation which is exactly what our industry needs if we are to remain sustainable far into the future. If we achieve that they we are all winners because it goes a long way to securing our ability to continue to provide Australians with fresh, safe and nutritious dairy products that are produced in our own backyard!

There’s always time for a good scratch!!

There’s always time for a good scratch!!