Thursday, June 3, 2010

Robot Milker’s, Star Wars on the Farm.

Those of us who went to school in the 60s and 70s may well remember being told how grand life would be when we were older. Robots were to do most of the work and we would only work 3 or 4 days a week, our biggest job was going to be what to do with all the spare time. Yeah, right! Now we have less sleep and work more hours than we did 30 years ago and are lucky if we find time to put our feet up for a quick nap let alone pursue enjoyable pastimes and hobbies. The only robots I see are us being turned into them.
Then the other day over coffee I learnt that our neighbour Brad May who dairy farms down the road had installed a Robot milker in his barn and was now living the good life watching his clock turn 6.00am while still lying in his bed. This I had to see and so made an appointment to see this marvellous mechanical beast. “Come any time” Brad said as its always working.
Brad has a new barn for his operation and work crews are still there doing the finishing touches. The cows though have moved into their palace already and look happy and contented. It is a spacious, airy, light easy to clean barn and is bird proof so there are no pigeons (winged rats!) and no droppings to dodge! The robot milker is actually a stall at the end of the barn which cows can walk in to when ever they feel like it. While they are milked they receive a measured amount of grain which is controlled by a computer in the office. It reads the chip in the cow’s number tag around her neck, so it does not under or over feed her. The cows can go in as often as they like but are only milked 3 times a day with milking’s no closer than 4 hours apart .The stall is actually one wall of the milking parlour and the robot is on the parlour side of the stall. The robot is a large sensitive arm much like the mechanical welders in car factories. They have been around for 20 years but with all the bugs ironed out of them they are now gaining popularity with farmers building new barns and parlours. The cow’s teats are washed first with the aid of a laser eye which guides the arm. A suction cup with circulating water is placed on each teat to wash and dry it. Then four separate milk cups are put one on each teat. The udder has four quarters and they each milk at different speeds. The robot senses when each one is finished and then removes it leaving the others milking until they are finished. This eliminates the damage done by over milking that can happen with regular machines where all four quarters are milked at the same time, all on all off so to speak. The milk is held in a receiving jar and is pumped to a refrigerated holding tank where it is kept till the milk truck picks it up to haul it to the dairy. The computer tallies each cows milk yield daily which aids and simplifies the management of the herd.
Brad tells me the cows adapted to the new system quickly and only one or two of the old girls need help to use it. Like some of us older ones, they don’t do change! Many of the cows go to be milked in the middle of the night while Brad is asleep and because they are happy their milk yields are improving and Brad is happier with a more normal lifestyle. It means he has more time for his young family and for his other job, coaching a hockey team. He thinks the robot will pay for itself in 10 years, so as you see, they don’t come cheap. They also work all day without complaining, don’t need holidays, and don’t show up hung over! Brad grows all the herds feed on the farm and this means that the robot allows him to stay in the field to complete the job instead of stopping for milking half way through the afternoon. Sounds like a win- win to me.
Now for a little secret, Brads milking parlour is the only one I know of with a chesterfield in it so you can get comfortable while watching the work at hand. What a photo op. Brad watching hockey on the TV, supping beer lounging on the sofa while the cows are being milked. “No way” said Brad. “I would never live it down; folks would get the wrong impression and think we were all lazy out here.” Well Brad I could see you are not lazy and many of us are green with envy as you have found a way out of farming’s biggest “chore”. All the best with your robot, and as you farm in the city it’s good to see you living a more normal time table. I wonder if they make those robots ‘goat’ sized as I will soon have milking chores to do.
Good News.
For those of you who follow this column I have good news following our vet’s pregnancy check visit. Charles did his stuff! All the goats are bred. The rams did a good job too as all the ewes are bred with the exception of two old girls, which was no surprise as they remember the first George Bush presidency! So we are shearing in the first week in March and then its full steam ahead to April lambing.

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