Milking a cow is a very complex, weary process. First, the udders are cleaned and the bacterial load is reduced through pre-milking. This is then followed by the actual milking, with all its intricacies, before the teats are disinfected at the end of the process. All this has to be done for every cow, twice a day, including weekends. For the efficiency of operations, this is usually in the early morning and in the evening. With conventional milking systems, all cows – or large groups of them – are milked at the same time.
Since the launch of the first milking robots in the 1990s, the technology has been continuously refined and is enjoying ever increasing acceptance. The machines not only make early mornings a thing of the past for the dairy farmer; they also allow the cows to enjoy a more humane daily routine. After all, not all cows have equally full udders at the same time every day.
Instead, the cow can use the robot when it senses that it is time to be milked. The machine is so adept at the process that the animal happily steps into the small enclosure containing the milking system to gain some welcome relief. The cow thus enters the milking chamber of its own will. It is detected automatically by a transponder and rewarded with a serving of concentrated feed. The various steps in the process are completed by the milking arm – a telescopic pole that is equipped with the necessary tools.
The contours of the udder are detected by laser beams or a camera system. The milking arm applies the cleaning brushes and moves the pre-milking cup to the teat, which is then washed, blow-dried and pre-milked. This procedure also stimulates the milk flow before the actual teat cups are applied. In the last step, the teats are disinfected.
Suction with pulsating vacuum
A vacuum in the teat cup draws the milk from the teats. It is generated by the vacuum pump of the robot and, depending on the settings and the cow's individual preference, can also simulate the pulsating sucking of a calf. The animals thus benefit from a highly individual ‘milking service'. This allows them to lead a more natural life and move freely between the barn and the pasture. The cows are less stressed and feel more at ease, which in turn results in more milk.
Milking robots also offer a whole host of other advantages: human involvement in the milking process is reduced dramatically; the milk yield of each cow is recorded automatically; thanks to modern IT and communication technology, the robots make the relevant data available online and can also be controlled via a PC or mobile device.
Data for cow health
The data provided by the robot also provides insights into the cow's behaviour and its health. Cows with hoof problems are quickly identified since their pain causes them to visit the milking station less frequently. As well as the quantity, the temperature and contents of the milk can be determined, as can the weight of the cow.
During each milking process, the robot also measures the electrical conductivity of the milk. This depends on the salt content and a raised value can serve as an early indicator of possible udder inflammation (mastitis). Because the normal value varies from cow to cow, such early detection is not possible with conventional milking systems. The robot can compare the individual values for each cow. A colour sensor also allows blood in the milk to be detected and subsequently removed.
Since 1991, manufacturers of milking robots have been using Busch vacuum technology to generate the vacuum required for the milking process.