If cow milking recalls a bucolic image of a farmer strolling out to the barn with a bucket and stool, then the 21st century will be a disappointment to those raised on James Herriot stories. A case in point is the Astronaut 4 from Dutch agricultural firm Lely. With this robotic milker, the farmer needn't come any closer to the action than a readout on a smartphone, leaving the cows to get on with the milking themselves.
Milk is big business with over 20 billion gallons (76 billion l) produced in the US alone. Modern milk cows produce an average of 6.5 gallons (24.6 l) of milk per day. They have to be milked twice a day or you end up with a herd of animals in distress and pain. That means a lot of milking all around, and dairy farmers must either plan their daily routine entirely around this fact or make enough money to hire additional labor.
In the early 20th century, milking machines became available and a certain degree of mechanization started to creep into dairy farming. By 1939, a “rotolactor” milking parlor was showcased at the Borden pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, where cows were led into a rotating carousel, which kept the whole milking machine process organized on a nicely industrial basis.
Unfortunately, despite technocratic hopes, farming is not manufacturing and cows have their own ideas of how to behave. That’s why we still talk about agriculture as being different from industry. Chasing cows, making them wait and herding them into a milking parlor to have machines hooked up to suit efficiency experts doesn't help yield, so something more was needed to ease the life of the farmer.
Robotic milking is based on the idea that if the cow can’t be adapted to the machine, then adapt the machine to the cow. Based on research conducted in Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands in the 1980s, robotic milking was the first major application of robotic farming and is one of the most advanced areas today. It’s gone beyond just milking and is more of a milking/monitoring system with the cow taking charge of its own milking schedule.
The Astronaut 4 is one of a range of robotic farming systems made by Lely, including robotic cowshed cleaners and forage pushers. It’s modular, so it can be configured to local farm needs, and works on the principle that instead of the farmer or the robot controlling the milking, the cow does. This may produce some very weird mental pictures, but there is logic at work because the cow knows better than anyone else how often she needs to be milked and if a robot milker is built to take this into account, there will be more milk and happier cows.
The Astronaut 4 system is designed to be as easy as possible for the cow to use. One innovation is the “I-flow concept,” where the cow can walk straight in and out without having to turn or back up – two things that cows hate to do. The I-flow allows the cow to learn how to use the machine faster, reduces stress, and makes the milking station less of a bottleneck because there isn't a whole herd trying to get in at the same time.
With such a design, the cow soon learns to go into the robotic milking station to be milked and get a bit of food when it feels like it. Levy even claims that the cows learn how to use the system faster than the farmers do.
Once inside, the cow has a feeding trough to keep it occupied. This, too, is automatic. Depending on the configuration, the trough can automatically dispense food, minerals, supplements, and liquids to suit each cow. As the trough swings clear at the end of milking, this encourages the cow to walk forward and leave. According to Lely, this simple action is enough to increase the capacity of the robot by an extra cow each day.
The Lely version of the robotic milking arm arm was introduced in 1992 and the Astronaut 4 version is a more developed model. It looks formidable, but that’s because it’s designed to be stable and to survive being trodden on by half a ton of underdone pot roast. It uses a “bottom up” approach that raises the teat cups on the milker in such a way that they can’t drop off from the udder and has adjustable settings to fit each individual cow’s needs. The arm is also designed to be gentle and the mechanics are relatively simple and operates with a minimum of movements to avoid alarming the cow as it locates and docks with the teats using a 3D camera and lasers.
Another feature is a set of counter-rotating brushes that automatically clean the teats of dirt and manure with a mild chlorine-free detergent. The brushing also stimulates the production of oxytocin as well as improving milk flow speed.
The milk is moved from the arm through the rest of the system by means of compressed air impeller pumps. Compressed air is the preferred method of powering a milking robot wherever possible to avoid the danger of contamination that a hydraulic system presents. Steam is used to clean the system between each milking.
The robotic arm and pen of the Astronaut 4 are also equipped with sensors to detects signs of mastitis. The Lely MQC Milk Quality Control MQC in the arm measures the color, temperature, conductivity, fat, lactose, levels of somatic cells, and protein levels in the milk for each cow. It also notes animal weight, milking speed and when milking is unproductive, and it adjusts food supplements, minerals and medicines for each animal.
As for the farmer, aside from filling the hoppers, collecting the milk and maintenance, most of the work is supervising the system by means of a remote dashboard on a computer or other device and using the collected data for management. It may be more Bill Gates than Farmer Giles, but at least the cows always get milked on time.
The video below runs us through the features of the Lely Astronaut 4
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