The $210,000 Cow-Milking Robot

A cow exits the Lely Astronaut A4 milking machine Photograph by Lely

Let’s presume for a moment that you aren’t someone who thinks a great deal about dairy farming. Like me, for example. You (or I) may think you have this idea about what it means to milk a cow. For me, it was always something akin to what Harrison Ford did in Witness—wake up at o-dark-thirty, sit on a stool, and work a cow’s teat until you filled a bucket with milk.

Of course, Witness came out 27 years ago. More important, those guys in the movie were Amish. Not really the early-adopter type. Things are a little more high-tech out there among them English.

Or as it turns out, a lot more high-tech. I’ve spent the last two days at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., checking out the state of the art in dairy technology. The expo’s a good place to do this, as it’s the largest dairy trade show in the world—with more than 65,000 attendees from 90 different countries, and upwards of 2,500 cows that will be judged in competition or sold at auction.

One of the most impressive things I’ve seen at the expo has been Lely’s Astronaut A4, the Dutch company’s latest-generation robotic milking machine. I am not being sarcastic or snarky when I tell you that it is completely fascinating.

For starters, the A4 does not require a human being at any point in the milking process, leaving farmers free to cook dinner, work the books, or play Parcheesi. That’s because no one has to move a cow into the milking box. The animal goes there on its own because it knows there is feed there (the cows are fed traditionally, but the A4 contains higher-protein food, and cows are really good at knowing what they’re eating and, more important, what they want to eat). The front of the box has a trough where a cow can eat a measured amount of grain while it’s being milked.

The A4 scans a cow’s collar to determine which cow it is. The machine has a full history of that cow’s milk production and feeding habits, based on previous visits, and can tailor the amount of feed the cow receives and the rate of pulsation at the teat to produce the most milk.

The A4 also knows the cow’s milking schedule: If a cow tries to come back for milking too soon after the last session, the feed trough swings away, the gate opens, and the cow will walk out of the box. If a cow hasn’t come through the system in a while, the A4 will alert the farmer.

Once a cow is in the box, a carbon-fiber and stainless-steel robotic arm moves under the cow, scans it with lasers to find the teats, and attaches four teatcups in a matter of seconds. A video camera mounted above the cow measures the animal’s position in three dimensions. Should the cow move in any direction, the robotic arm will move in concert.

The machine also automatically brushes the teats twice: first to stimulate milk flow and then, after milking, to clean them off. After the milkcups are removed following a milking, they are returned to a cleaning station where they are washed with hot water or steam.

As the milk is collected, it is analyzed to make sure the milk—and the cow—is healthy. This is done in a variety of ways: by analyzing the color of the milk, measuring its flow, and measuring its electrical conductivity, which can be an indication of inflammation or some other problem the cow is having. (Inflammation equals increased blood flow. Blood has minerals in it. Minerals are conductive. Voilà.)

The A4 can handle about 180 milkings a day, which usually translates to 60 cows milked three times daily. Total cost for a single unit, installed, is around $210,000. And the crazy thing was this: After seeing this fully automatic, 3D-camera-enabled, laser-scanning, carbon-fiber-equipped, spectral analyzing system, $210,000 didn’t seem all that much to me.

Now I just need to get some cows.

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