How much would you pay to outsource the most tedious, physically demanding aspects of your job?
That question arose for Pete and Madonne Rainville in April 2008, when their dairy barn burned down and they considered how to rebuild it. They could go back to the old-fashioned, tie-stall milking barn, in which Pete, now 40, would have to attach the milk pumps on his cows manually. But all that bending down, getting up and lifting was wearing out his joints so much that he was already on a regular regimen of physical therapy.
The Rainvilles could rebuild a more efficient and ergonomic milking parlor, with elevated stalls and overhead pump holders. But it would still shackle Pete to a 6-hour-per-day milking schedule, and they couldn’t imagine their four young daughters taking up that burden someday.
Then they discovered the Lely Astronaut, a robotic milking machine that reduces farmers’ milking duties to minutes a day and can be monitored from a personal computer. A complete unit that can milk 65 cows costs $200,000, but eliminates the expense, and the headaches, of labor. The Rainvilles went for it. Their laser-guided robot has been running since early August and its owners are happy customers.
Robotic milking systems are widespread in Europe, where they’ve been in use for the past 20 years. But they’re only just gaining ground here, since the technology had to catch up to the United States’ high standards for milk quality and animal welfare. Just two farms in Vermont use the systems so far — the other one is Nordic Farm in Charlotte — and only about 100 other units are in use in the rest of the U.S.
Paul Godin, 38, who sells and services robotic milking systems for the Netherlands-based Lely Group, is hoping to change that. Godin grew up on a dairy farm in Enosburg, then got an associate’s degree in business and went into the sales side of the dairy industry. He’s been with Lely for six years; last fall, he became the state’s sole dealer of robotic milkers.
Most recent innovations in the dairy business have focused on increasing milk supply. Sexed semen, for instance, nearly guarantees female calves. When it comes to gadgets for efficiency and convenience, however, “the robot’s it,” declares Godin.
Seven Days caught up with Godin at the Rainville farm in Fairfax to see the robot in action.
Seven Days: Describe a cow’s day when it’s being milked by a robot.
Paul Godin: The robot runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and the cows are free to come in and get milked up to four times per day. They’re lured with grain. After a little training, they know to walk through the gate. If she’s not ready yet, it’ll divert her back to the barn. These cows are completely volunteering themselves to the robot. It’s like nature — in nature, a calf will suck on her mother 30 times in a day. The concept of milking cows twice a day, that’s for human comfort, not for the cow. The cow here is volunteering her milk and going at will. You’ll see cows come in every day within minutes of the day before. They establish their own hierarchy, their own schedule. It’s amazing to watch.
SD: How did the robot technology have to change to be allowed in the U.S.?
PG: The innovation comes in the per-quarter milking in the udder. A cow has four quarters, four teats, and it milks each quarter independently. So, as one quarter completes its milking process, it retracts the teat cup and no longer milks that quarter. In a conventional system, all four go on and they all stay on until the last one’s done. So it’s sucking on that teat until there’s nothing left. It causes stress, which is an animal-welfare issue.
SD: How does the robotic arm orient itself to attach to the cow?
PG: The first time the cow uses the robot you have to manually move the arms so that the lasers can identify the teat points. It builds on that from that day forward. Usually when they begin lactating, the udders are hard and engorged, and the robot uses that information. The laser takes over and re-verifies that information. It gets faster and faster each time. It also knows where her udder is based on her position in the box. There are sensors in the floor and they also weigh the cows, which helps identify health problems.
SD: How does the milk get into the tank?
PG: The robot has one tube for each teat … The tubes go through the milk quality control device, which has light and sound sensors. The sound sensors detect milk flow and determine when she’s done. The light sensors are checking for mastitis and blood, any deviations in milk quality. It’s all harvested in one receiver jar until she’s totally done. At the same time, the milk quality control is graphing the milk quality in the computer. If the milk’s good, it sends it out through this pipe across the ceiling and into the milk tank. If it’s not good, it dumps the milk down the drain or into these buckets, depending on what the farmer would like.
SD: What does the computer software track?
PG: It’s called Time for Cows and it has animated red and green dials that show cow lactation, udder health, grain intake, milk visits, failed milkings, total milk produced for the day, average milk for the day per cow, milk visits for the day and more. I can log in to the computer from anywhere and check all of it myself.
SD: What’s the farmer’s level of involvement with a robot?
PG: They have a small checklist daily. Hose the floor down, check the tubes for cracks. The computer system has a main box in the milkhouse, and if the robot breaks down for any reason, it will phone the Rainvilles at whatever number we have programmed. Wherever they are, it’ll tell them what the problem is: The robot’s not getting a chemical, it’s not washing properly, there’s a failed milking or something that’s not allowing the cows to get milked. If they go on vacation, they just program a different phone number.
SD: Do you think it’s just a matter of time before robots become the norm on dairy farms?
PG: It’s just a matter of time. Any farmer that comes here, they’re amazed. It’s so quiet. The cows are happy cows, and the farmers are not beat down. Because they’re freed up from the milking monotony, they’ll do a better job with their feed, with their crops … Cows cost between $1500 and $2000 apiece, and when you’re driving them into these big parlors and they can’t handle that stress, the cows only live about three years. The cows can live 10 to 12 years here.
SD: If this takes off in Vermont, what kind of jobs will it create?
PG: It’s going to be high-tech jobs. Computer skills. Working with people worldwide, learning robotics, electrical. I’m hoping to have three or four guys.