Editor's note: University of Minnesota Extension co-hosts the first U.S. Precision Dairy Conference and Expo June 25-27 in Rochester. Listen to Marcia Endres, Extension dairy scientist, talk about optional dairy tours Audio File.

New technologies available to dairy farmers are changing the way milk is produced on many U.S. dairy farms.

Technology makes dairy operations more efficient"Precision dairy is the name used to describe several different areas of innovation on dairy farms. The thing all of the various new tools have is that they increase efficiency in milk production," says Marcia Endres, University of Minnesota Extension Dairy Scientist.

Robotic milkers, individual cow sensors, automated calf feeders and inline parlor technologies are some of these innovations.

Robotic milkers, or automated milking systems (AMS) are becoming more popular on Minnesota dairy farms as producers look to improve the allotment of labor on their operations. Robotic milking increases flexibility so family farmers can occasionally be away from the farm and have a better quality of life.

"Milking is a repetitive task that benefits from being done exactly the same each time, which makes it a perfect fit for robotics," says Jim Salfer, an Extension dairy educator in St. Cloud.

The state is one of the leaders in the nation in number of AMS, according to Endres, after the first was installed in 2006. "That growth has been driven by great service, knowledgeable salespeople and interested producers," she says. Salfer and Endres are currently conducting a field study with 52 AMS farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin.

AMS essentially lets cows milk themselves. Over time, the system also helps improve milk quality. "The cows like it, too," says Salfer. "Instead of being herded into the parlor two or three times a day in groups, each cow can move at her own pace and approach the AMS to get milked when she is ready."

Salfer predicts that farms using robotic milkers will grow exponentially, which could bolster the state's economy. The seventh-largest dairy state, Minnesota exports about $191 million in dairy products annually.

Sensors attached to cows collect a myriad of information that gives dairy farmers more precise information about each cow, thereby helping manage the herd more efficiently and improving herd health and reproduction.

The sensors can provide data related to the cow's temperature, rumination, activity or other characteristics of the individual animal. Endres says this can help producers identify health problems much earlier. Better animal care is one benefit, due to faster identification of illness, which can result in more productivity.

Automated calf feeders reduce the labor and time required to feed calves by properly mixing and feeding milk replacer or cow's milk.

Many Minnesota dairies have invested in automated calf feeding systems, but the producers still have questions about feeding procedures to optimize calf health, welfare and growth performance.

Endres is the principal investigator on a USDA-funded grant to specifically study automated calf feeders best practices. The Southern Research and Outreach Center in Waseca uses an automated feeder system for research demonstrations.

Noah Litherland, Extension dairy scientist, has also been a part of calf feeder research. "With grant support from the University of Minnesota and the allied dairy industry, we continue to study connections between how we feed the baby calf and raising a healthy and productive future dairy cow," he says.

In-line parlor technologies is a term that covers several new tools for the dairy producer. These technologies monitor and evaluate many different facets of the production system. Examples include specialized milking equipment, individual cow testing at milking time, and nutrition systems that provide each cow with the best individual ration.

The wave of the future, but in baby steps

Endres and other Extension dairy team members are collecting data from several dozen Midwest dairy farms on the use of robotic milkers and automated calf feeders. Sensor technology also provides data that Endres uses in her research on cow behavior and well-being.

"It's the wave of the future, but not all of these systems have to be used all at once on a dairy farm," says Endres. "Each producer will choose the technologies that most benefit his or her operation."

Minnesota exports about $191 million in dairy products annually. Over time, precision dairy systems help improve milk quality.