In the 1970s the idea of a machine or robot that could perform all that was necessary to milk a cow without human intervention seemed to most of us either a fantasy or a space age dream! By the end of the 1990s there were over 400 robots (automatic milking systems) milking cows on European dairy farms and the first milking robot was in operation in Canada. In 2002 there were three farms in Pennsylvania with operating robots. I do not know how many Pennsylvania farms have milking robots in 2011. However, anyone interested in this technology can likely find an operating robot within a couple of hours drive. They can also find experienced local sales and service for two brands with extensive US experience and a third brand that has several years of operation in Europe and is now handled by a US company. A system for use on large rotary parlors has also been announced. It is safe to assume that every major company supplying milking systems or milking parlor equipment is closely watching or developing equipment related to automatic milking practices.
Automatic milking systems are still a very new technology. Early adopters are doing pioneering work on just how to take advantage of the positive aspects of this technology and how to fix or work around the negative or unknown problems. One might say this technology is in its adolescent stage. In many circumstances it is grown up and capable of getting milking and cow care done consistently well. On the other hand there are still some areas where the technology is a little awkward, testing its wings and learning how to be the best it can be. The ability to recognize and locate teats, perform pre-milking operations, attach machines, evaluate milk quality and complete the milking process are well developed. Manufacturers are now working on how to speed up these tasks and improve milk quality monitoring methods.
Designers and installers of the machines and the barns in which they are placed are still learning the importance and details of the most suitable barn layout (robot, resting and feeding space and location), resting area construction and management, interior barn climate control, feeding scenarios, stall maintenance and cow observation. Management and herd health advisors are still calibrating their recommendations to the needs, strengths and weaknesses of this technology. Farmers and herd managers are constantly learning new positive and negative issues encountered with this new method for managing milking cow. I regularly have to remind myself that a milking robot is part of a whole new cow management system and not just a replacement for the human being holding the milking unit.