Imagine a dairy farmer didn’t wake early to milk his cows at 3:30 a.m. or not have to return to milk again in the afternoon. Imagine cows getting milked when they want to, 24 hours a day, and if there is a problem with milking on the night shift, the herdsman receives a phone call at home alerting him to exactly what that problem is.
These advantages occur at Hill Lawn Farm LLC in Lee, MA, where the farm’s milker is neither milkman nor milkmaid, but a robot — two Lely Astronauts from Holland-based Lely company utilized since late September to milk the farm’s niche Jerseys.
Milking by robots was not something that Colonel George Wilde and Marjorie Field Wilde, who came in possession of the farm in 1935 via her mother, could ever have conceived for the farm that originated in the late 1800s. They set their sights on enhancing the milk output and quality of the Jersey breed, both earning Master Breeder Awards from the American Jersey Cattle Club and becoming well-known throughout the country. After 1998, the 1500 acre farm was owned by their son, the late William Wilde, and remains in the Wilde family, managed by Roberto Laurens since 2002.
Before robotic milkers, their Jerseys produced 50 pounds daily. Now they produce 61 pounds. The cows are not rotated out at age two or three and stay at the farm until they’re 11 or 12.
Each cow wears a collar equipped with a bell-shaped sensor and battery that sends radio signals to the robot’s computer. The sensor tells the mainboard computer if it’s time for the cow to be milked, then the swinging automatic gate opens, she enters and eats an automatically measured amount of grain from a swinging grain bucket.
After a brush cleans them, the heat of their udders activates a loud laser sensor that beeps and attaches milking tubes to each teat. The sensor signals if the cow should not be milked; some are milked four times daily. Of the farm’s 300 cows, approximately 125 are kept free-stalled in the barn in milk production, with back-up.
“It’s made a lot of difference. Milk production is up 10 pounds,” said Laurens.
Of the 113 cows milked, the somatic cell count used to be 200,000 to 300,000. Now, it is 100,000 with the lowest at 96,000.
Laurens can access the robot’s mainboard from his office computer or his cell phone, keeping an eye on each individual cow at any time. He is thrilled to see that in one day, a cow’s production is up almost half a pound from 61.5 to 61.9 pounds.
Last year they built a new barn to house the milk herd and robots, installed water beds covered with sawdust bedding, and grated walkways to allow manure to fall through into a container and be transferred to their hay and corn fields that supply hay and silage for their cows.
Herdsman Ryan Robechaud and his two helpers don’t have to be at the barn until 5 a.m. “It’s just amazing,” said Laurens. “The cows are relaxed; inside the barn is so clean and nice.”
Everything is geared towards the cows’ comfort. “The more comfortable they get, the more milk produced,” said assistant manager Brad Torrey, who started delivering milk on a commercial route in 2002.
“Forty percent of farms in Europe use this system. It’s five percent here, but it’s growing,” said Torrey.
The milk is processed on the farm, some is used to make butter. They deliver both milk and butter to Whole Foods Markets, Big Y, Price Choppers, and Stop and Shops in Massachusetts and New York.
“Ninety-five percent of the milk we process, we deliver in less than two days,” said Torrey.
The driving is still done by humans.