Bridport farmer leaps into robotic milking

BRIDPORT — Today more than ever, technology is interwoven into our daily lives, and recently is becoming a key player on Vermont dairy farms.
In April of this year, Dan Barnes of Barnes Black and White Farm in Bridport took a leap of faith when he turned to robotic milking technology to harvest milk from his dairy cows. Robotic milking systems not only take care of the milking chores nearly 24 hours a day, they also regularly screen every individual cow’s health, monitor the quality of her milk, and aim to position the dairy to be more sustainable into the future.
Barnes has been impressed with his cows’ transition to the robotic milking facility, according to a media release from Poulin Grain Inc.
“For the first few days, we had to move the cows up to the robot to show them where to be milked,” said Barnes. “But before we knew it the cows were visiting the robot to be milked completely on their own. I think they like the ability to manage their own schedules, and decide on their own when they would like to eat, lie down or be milked.”
It appears successful for the cows, too. In fact, Poulin reports they are producing more milk. Barnes still milks cows conventionally, three times a day in a milking parlor. However, at peak milk production, the cows in the robot facility are making over a gallon of milk per cow more than their conventionally milked herd mates.
Producing more milk, with the same number of cows, means that the robots are also improving the overall sustainability of the dairy.
“There is a fixed amount of resources that go toward raising a young heifer into an adult milking cow,” explained Barnes. “Providing each adult cow with a comfortable environment, and allowing her to give us more milk every day, means that we are producing more food for our community without expanding our environmental footprint.”
Barnes Black and White Farm is owned by Dan Barnes, along with his father Bill and mother Meg, and his uncle Bruce. The Barnes family milks a total of 1,200 cows divided across three locations in Addison County.
The decision to incorporate robotic milking into the farm business was threefold. First and foremost, Dan Barnes said he believed “that it was the right thing to do for the cows. There are so many benefits when you give the cows back their time and allow them to manage their own schedule.”
Additionally, because the Barnes family milks cows at three different facilities, the autonomy of robots fit well into that system.
And lastly, robots provided both a cost and stability advantage compared to a larger human labor force.
According to Barnes, “With robots, you are essentially locking in 20 years of labor.”
Barnes purchased four Lely Astronaut A4 automated milking systems. Each robot can milk between 50 and 60 cows every day. The robot saves a map of each cows’ udder in its database, and the cows wear a collar with a Radio Frequency ID (RFID) card that identifies them when they walk into the robot.
Before milking, the robot uses lasers to determine how the cow is standing, and then cleans her udder. When she is finished milking, her teats are sprayed with an iodine-based moisturizer, and she is then free to return to the pen. Because the cows visit the robot voluntarily when they feel that they are ready to be milked, this entire process can be completed without a human present.
The maker of the robotic milking technology also promotes other features that it says improve the way a farm monitors cow health. The RFID collars count the amount of steps that a cow takes every day, similar to a pedometer worn by a human. The robots measure the temperature of the milk produced at each milking, and if a cow catches a cold and develops a fever, the milk temperature will be elevated and the cow will be flagged for further attention.
Perhaps most importantly, the robots offer a gentle, predictable milking experience, reports Poulin. A robot can provide the consistency that cows love at every milking and robots milk around the clock, which gives farmers like Dan Barnes the flexibility to focus on other aspects of his farm — or skip away from the farm for a few moments to spend time with his family.

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