One of the best-attended booths at the Expo was that of Dutch dairy-equipment manufacturer Lely, where the highlight was the company’s Astronaut A4 robotic milker, an updated version of the system the Dockendorfs use on their farm. A key virtue of having a robotic milker in your barn—provided you have about $200,000 to buy one—is that you don’t have to be there for cows to get milked. The A4 has a small gated area with a feed trough at one end that the machine refills between milking sessions. A cow enters the area on its own, knowing that it’ll find grain to snack on. While it’s munching, a stainless-steel-and-carbon-fiber arm extends underneath it, automatically attaching milking machinery to its four teats (the A4 uses lasers to scan the underside of the cow and identify where the teats are). When the milking is done, the trough swings away, the gate opens, and the cow rejoins the herd in the barn. The A4 then cleans and resets itself for the next cow.
This saves a dairy farmer that fun daily ritual of waking up at the crack of dawn to milk the cows, but what’s just as important is the data collected from each cow. The A4 scans a cow’s collar, using either radio waves or infrared light to tell one animal from another. Next, the system tracks several parameters while the cow is milked: its weight, its milk production, the time required to milk it, the amount of feed the cow eats—even how long the cow chews on its cud (determined through audio sensors on certain collars).
The machine collects data on the cow’s milk as well. Milk coming out of each teat (or quarter, in dairy parlance) is checked for color, fat and protein content, temperature, conductivity (an indicator of possible infection), and somatic cell count. This information is pulled together into reports for each cow; if the A4 detects a problem, the machine can alert the farmer on his phone.BusinessWeek
Photo Credit: Lely