Emerging Tech

The great milk shake-up: Farm robots that toil till the cows come home

As an IT pro, sometimes it's fascinating to see the application of technology in industries that are so different to one's own.

Robots and automation down on the farm let the cow decide when she wants to be milked. Photo: Shutterstock

I've just driven my daughter to Nottingham University Veterinary School's open day. Interesting place and a great-looking facility - it's only been open seven years so it's the newest veterinary school in the UK, with an excellent curriculum designed from scratch.

But I wasn't expecting to see the most amazing piece of automation that I've laid eyes on in a long time.

They have a working, full-scale commercial research dairy farm housing 220 cows. And tech fans, listen up: they are milked by four robotic machines. Now I thought I knew all about milking machines, having grown up in the country. But this blew me away.

For a start, the process really is completely automated. The cows all live under cover. They are not herded into milking twice daily, but serve themselves when they want to be milked.

This approach apparently makes for happier cows and greater milk yields. And they really do help themselves, wandering into the milking stall when they are ready.

And then the amazing milking machine starts its work. At Nottingham, I saw a Dutch-manufactured Lely Astronaut do its stuff. First off, the cow in the stall is identified by an RFID tag worn around its neck. The computer will send the cow away again if it has been milked too recently.

If all is OK, then a laser guidance system finds the cow's teats, which are then washed individually by two rotating brushes.

Next the lasers guide the teat cups into place, one by one, and as they attach the milking begins. Once each of the udder's four chambers is empty, that teat cup retracts to the robotic arm, until all four are replaced and milking is over for that cow. The equipment is automatically washed and ready for the next animal.

As milking happens, the milk quantity and quality is analysed by the machine and compared with that cow's previous production. Data that can be easily captured and analysed can include: milk temperature, milk conductivity, milk colour, milking speed and any changes, and milk produced each quarter of the udder.

With a weighing platform under the machine, the cow's weight can also be recorded and analysed. If there are any urgent problems with a cow or its milk, they can be immediately identified and help sought.

I was truly blown away by this machine, which you can see in action in a video, and most of all because it's self-service. Turns out that this type of technology first came in at the beginning of the 1990s.

It's fascinating to see the applications of technology in industries that are so different to one's own, and extraordinary that this type of thing has been in use for 20 years.

Other notable technology on the farm included automated feeders, mechanised slurry scrapers and cow back massagers, which from a distance looked like car-wash brushes.

All this technology suggests new plot lines for fans of the long-running BBC radio soap The Archers to enjoy. Brian Aldridge will become Ambridge's first robotic farmer when his new dairy unit gets built. What will Eddie Grundy make of that, I wonder?

About

Nic Bellenberg is an interim CIO and former IT director at publishing house Hachette Filipacchi UK.

3 comments
mjf
mjf

There are a few of those in use in Israel, obviously on bigger farms. I can't tell if the cows are happier.

AnsuGisalas
AnsuGisalas

Now we just need to apply it to wor... ooook, not going there!!!

Shankarl
Shankarl

I hard about the automation in the farms, but 100% automation with laser guided technology is a news to me.