Robots are Coming to UConn Dairy Center

By: Patsy Evans, University of Connecticut

Robots vacuum floors and assist surgeons. Soon, they will be milking the University of Connecticut dairy herd. To house the robots, a 3,000-square-foot Kellogg Dairy Center addition is underway with an expected opening in April 2018. When it is finished, the facility will be among the first voluntary milking systems installed at a university.

This state-of-the art robotic technology will benefit the cows’ health and welfare, the farm staff’s ability to care for the animals in an individual way and the students’ experiential learning, according to Steven Zinn, professor and head of the Department of Animal Science.

The idea was first suggested by Mary-Margaret Cole, animal science’s executive program director, and took about two years of “patience and persistence” to be realized, but it resulted in a “true collaboration.”

“Now, the University dairy herd will have cutting-edge technology made possible by the partnership between the Department of Animal Science, the CAHNR Dean’s Office, the Provost’s Office and the UConn Foundation,” Zinn said. The $1.8 million cost covers the whole project from the design phase to the installation of the robots.

The new milking system will use the current data collection process and integrate into existing equipment, such as the milk storage tank, which holds two days’ worth of milk. Improved features include two robots working around the clock, an area that facilitates the cows’ movements, equipment to harvest and cool the milk and a viewing room.

“Overall, robotic milking meets the needs of individual cows better,” Zinn said. For example, some cows produce up to 150 pounds of milk per day and will be milked more often than others in the herd. Staff members will set up parameters that determine the maximum frequency of milking for each cow.

How the robots work

The system is called “voluntary” because the cow decides when she needs to be milked, based on a physical urge. When she enters the machine, the information on her ear tag is read. If she is within her particular parameters, she will receive a food reward and be milked. However, it will take time for the cows to get used to the process. For example, a cow might come back too soon when her utter is not full because she is lured by another opportunity to be fed. In that case, the robot will deny permission and release the cow.

In the process, the robots collect data, such as the cow’s weight and milk yield. These records can be viewed on the robot, a computer or a mobile device.

Advantages for the cows

The robotic method fosters the cows’ welfare in many ways. Data obtained by the robots will determine the amount of feed each animal is allocated and the timing of the feeding. This is different from the past system where feeding was based on the average requirements of the group and distributed to every cow at about the same time. An added advantage is that the barn is quieter and calmer when the cows eat when they want to eat, according to Zinn.

Nutritional needs can be addressed on a one-on-one basis, as well. In addition, if a cow has not come for milking at the usual frequency, a staff member can investigate the reason for her absence. The robots also assure that the cow is not under or over milked, and they can detect early signs of illness.

Changes for the farm staff

With automatic milking, staff members will not have the manual labor of prepping cows for milking and attaching the milking machines. Zinn says that the half day that it formerly took to do the milking will be spent in other ways.

For one, the data collected will inform animal care decisions. Also, more time will go toward giving individual attention to the 75 Holstein and 25 Jersey cows, who produce about 900 gallons of milk daily. Potentially, this attention will increase the herd’s productivity and health.

Benefits for students

Animal science students will benefit from the robots, as well. They have a unique opportunity to work with the robots and the data collection as part of their college classes. Cole said, “The most important reason I am excited to begin working with the robots is that our students will have access to the latest technology for managing our cows’ health and production.”

In addition, students will be better equipped for using state-of-the art dairy farm technology as voluntary milking systems become more popular around the world.

(Note: Story originally appeared on [email protected])