Penn State helps put robots to work down on the farm

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. -- A fresh summer breeze moves through the open-air cow barn of the Ti Glo dairy farm in Howard, Pennsylvania, as Legs the cow gets up from her bed of hay, knowing it’s time to be milked. As she strolls through the open barn, a Roomba-like floor cleaner quietly sweeps by her feet, stopping and readjusting its route to avoid her. Undeterred by the contraption, she meanders by herd mates and makes her way into an open, cow-sized compartment at the front of the barn. The moment she steps onto the compartment platform, the device reads information from her electronic identification collar and a collection of feed rations customized to her milk production spills into a feeder for her to munch on. Pneumatic, robotic arms reach out to wash and scan her udders with lasers before attaching mechanical milk pumps. When the robot finishes milking, Legs exits the platform and strolls back to her bed, passing by a steady flow of cows on their way to the robotic milking device.

Twenty-eight pounds of milk are now on their way to becoming a pound of butter — but human hands never touched Legs.

Unlike the relaxed way dairy cows exist on the Ti Glo farm, dairy farming is a demanding job for farmers. But with such technology as laser-guided robots and computer-programmed cleaning devices, today’s dairy farms, including Ti Glo, are working smarter rather than harder.

Tim and Gloria Rogers began the family-run Ti Glo dairy farm more than 30 years ago when four- to six-hour-long, pre-dawn and late afternoon milkings by family members and other farm staff were an everyday occurrence. Today, the 500-acre farm is primarily operated by Tim and his 31-year-old son, Jake, thanks to three robotic milking systems they bought last year that have reduced their manual milking duties to minutes a day and can be monitored from a personal computer or other wireless device.

The decision to move from conventional milking to an automated system was the elder Rogers’ idea. "Many years of milking cows the traditional way was showing wear and tear on my dad," said Jake Rogers. "He wanted to find an easier way to transition the farm over to me, so he installed the robots."

Robotic milking systems are widespread in Europe, where they’ve been in use for the past 25 years, but the systems have taken a while to gain ground in the United States because the technology had to catch up to this country’s high standards for milk quality and animal welfare. Currently, farms in more than 18 states have robots. While Pennsylvania is ranked fifth in total milk production nationally, only about 35 farms in the state use the systems.

However, Penn State Extension Dairy Team educator Mat Haan thinks that number will increase in the coming years. Haan works with Pennsylvania dairy farms who are interested in learning about the systems as well as those who already have them in place. Recently, he facilitated a live webinar series about robotic milking as part of extension’s "Technology Tuesday" dairy education programming. "We offered the bi-monthly webinar to talk about different issues related to robots," said Haan.

Rogers watches recordings of the webinars when he finds time between farming and his other part-time job as a computer-aided design specialist at a local architectural firm. "The webinars have a lot of valuable information in them if you can allot time to participate; it’s great to have a network of people to call on, and it gives me insights into different aspects of our farm’s performance."

With the addition of the robots, the Ti Glo farm is performing better than ever. Prior to their installation, Ti Glo had 130 cows and 12 rotating staffers and family members to help with milking. The automated system has allowed for an additional 38 cows and a 17 percent increase in milk production, most of which is used locally by Land O’ Lakes. Last summer, some shipments were also used by Penn State’s Berkey Creamery.  

Robotic milking is a big ticket investment, costing up to $250,000 for a single unit, but it has the potential to completely change the way farmers milk their cows and manage their farms.

The milking barn at the Ti Glo farm is open inside, without interior fencing or gates, to encourage the cows to voluntarily go to the robots two to three times a day for milking. The computerized milking system automates most of the milking tasks, allowing the job to be performed without Rogers being present. Humans still perform such tasks as cleaning the robots and milk room, grooming stalls, fetching cows that have gone more than 12 hours since their last milking or milked below a determined threshold, recalibrating sensors and performing routine care and equipment maintenance. But, the timing of these tasks is more flexible, freeing Rogers to monitor individual cow performance and health so he can better manage his herd’s overall milk production.

With help from a loan from AgChoice Farm Credit, Rogers was able to purchase his robots and build the new barn that houses them and his Roomba-style floor cleaning system. The system cleans the barn floor on a pre-programmed routine, scraping manure into grates in the floor that lead to a storage pit underneath the barn where the manure is housed until it can be spread as fertilizer for his fields. Rogers said as long as he can sustain production and pay the mortgage, he plans to purchase another robot milking unit in the near future, after upgrading an existing free-stall barn to accommodate it.

The decreased labor from the new technology has also enabled the Rogers family to have more leisure time together. In May, Jake and the whole family were able to attend his younger sister’s wedding. "Her wedding was scheduled right in the middle of what would have been our afternoon milking session," recalled Jake. "If we didn’t have the robots she would have had to pick another time of day, or I wouldn’t have been able to attend."

In addition to providing labor and lifestyle changes, robotic milking systems provide a wealth of data to help farmers manage their herds. Information such as cow health, weight, activity, milk production and milk quality is at Rogers’ fingertips for individual animals, groups of animals or the entire herd.

On the Ti Glo farm, Rogers is able to analyze data collected by his robots from the touch-screen console located on the unit or from a computer located in the barn’s office. He spends about two hours each day working with the robots’ computerized herd management system, and he is always linked to his herd via a mobile app that allows him to monitor data through his smartphone.

"Today’s younger dairy farmers pretty much grew up with technology and are more comfortable using it and bringing automation into their farm system," said Haan.

Rogers says automation in the dairy industry is the only way to be successful and that a new generation of farmers is getting into it for good reasons. "We now have a better approach to working with the cows and it plays into our age of networking, where robotic milking systems are linked to smart devices," he said.  

But for Rogers, being a dairy farmer isn’t all about the technology: "It’s also about being outside and in touch with life and the animals, feeding a lot of people and making a difference."

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Last Updated August 15, 2014