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Lely Astronaut A4 milking robot lets cows milk themselves

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September 2, 2013

The Astronaut 4  robot milker is designed so that the cow doesn't need to turn or back up

The Astronaut 4 robot milker is designed so that the cow doesn't need to turn or back up

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If cow milking recalls a bucolic image of a farmer strolling out to the barn with a bucket and stool, then the 21st century will be a disappointment to those raised on James Herriot stories. A case in point is the Astronaut 4 from Dutch agricultural firm Lely. With this robotic milker, the farmer needn't come any closer to the action than a readout on a smartphone, leaving the cows to get on with the milking themselves.

Milk is big business with over 20 billion gallons (76 billion l) produced in the US alone. Modern milk cows produce an average of 6.5 gallons (24.6 l) of milk per day. They have to be milked twice a day or you end up with a herd of animals in distress and pain. That means a lot of milking all around, and dairy farmers must either plan their daily routine entirely around this fact or make enough money to hire additional labor.

In the early 20th century, milking machines became available and a certain degree of mechanization started to creep into dairy farming. By 1939, a “rotolactor” milking parlor was showcased at the Borden pavilion at the New York World’s Fair, where cows were led into a rotating carousel, which kept the whole milking machine process organized on a nicely industrial basis.

Unfortunately, despite technocratic hopes, farming is not manufacturing and cows have their own ideas of how to behave. That’s why we still talk about agriculture as being different from industry. Chasing cows, making them wait and herding them into a milking parlor to have machines hooked up to suit efficiency experts doesn't help yield, so something more was needed to ease the life of the farmer.

The Astronaut 4 robotic arm

Robotic milking is based on the idea that if the cow can’t be adapted to the machine, then adapt the machine to the cow. Based on research conducted in Britain, West Germany, and the Netherlands in the 1980s, robotic milking was the first major application of robotic farming and is one of the most advanced areas today. It’s gone beyond just milking and is more of a milking/monitoring system with the cow taking charge of its own milking schedule.

The Astronaut 4 is one of a range of robotic farming systems made by Lely, including robotic cowshed cleaners and forage pushers. It’s modular, so it can be configured to local farm needs, and works on the principle that instead of the farmer or the robot controlling the milking, the cow does. This may produce some very weird mental pictures, but there is logic at work because the cow knows better than anyone else how often she needs to be milked and if a robot milker is built to take this into account, there will be more milk and happier cows.

The Astronaut 4 system is designed to be as easy as possible for the cow to use. One innovation is the “I-flow concept,” where the cow can walk straight in and out without having to turn or back up – two things that cows hate to do. The I-flow allows the cow to learn how to use the machine faster, reduces stress, and makes the milking station less of a bottleneck because there isn't a whole herd trying to get in at the same time.

The Astronaut 4 steam cleans the system between milkings

With such a design, the cow soon learns to go into the robotic milking station to be milked and get a bit of food when it feels like it. Levy even claims that the cows learn how to use the system faster than the farmers do.

Once inside, the cow has a feeding trough to keep it occupied. This, too, is automatic. Depending on the configuration, the trough can automatically dispense food, minerals, supplements, and liquids to suit each cow. As the trough swings clear at the end of milking, this encourages the cow to walk forward and leave. According to Lely, this simple action is enough to increase the capacity of the robot by an extra cow each day.

The Lely version of the robotic milking arm arm was introduced in 1992 and the Astronaut 4 version is a more developed model. It looks formidable, but that’s because it’s designed to be stable and to survive being trodden on by half a ton of underdone pot roast. It uses a “bottom up” approach that raises the teat cups on the milker in such a way that they can’t drop off from the udder and has adjustable settings to fit each individual cow’s needs. The arm is also designed to be gentle and the mechanics are relatively simple and operates with a minimum of movements to avoid alarming the cow as it locates and docks with the teats using a 3D camera and lasers.

Counter-rotating teat cleaning brushes remove dirt and manure

Another feature is a set of counter-rotating brushes that automatically clean the teats of dirt and manure with a mild chlorine-free detergent. The brushing also stimulates the production of oxytocin as well as improving milk flow speed.

The milk is moved from the arm through the rest of the system by means of compressed air impeller pumps. Compressed air is the preferred method of powering a milking robot wherever possible to avoid the danger of contamination that a hydraulic system presents. Steam is used to clean the system between each milking.

The Astronaut 4 robotic arm uses lasers and a 3D camera to attach the teat cups

The robotic arm and pen of the Astronaut 4 are also equipped with sensors to detects signs of mastitis. The Lely MQC Milk Quality Control MQC in the arm measures the color, temperature, conductivity, fat, lactose, levels of somatic cells, and protein levels in the milk for each cow. It also notes animal weight, milking speed and when milking is unproductive, and it adjusts food supplements, minerals and medicines for each animal.

As for the farmer, aside from filling the hoppers, collecting the milk and maintenance, most of the work is supervising the system by means of a remote dashboard on a computer or other device and using the collected data for management. It may be more Bill Gates than Farmer Giles, but at least the cows always get milked on time.

The video below runs us through the features of the Lely Astronaut 4

Source: Lely via Modern Farmer

About the Author
David Szondy David Szondy is a freelance writer based in Monroe, Washington. An award-winning playwright, he has contributed to Charged and iQ magazine and is the author of the website Tales of Future Past.   All articles by David Szondy
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9 Comments

I do wonder about the displacement of workers and the fact that nothing is being done to help people as technology replaces human workers. There are probably not so many people employed in milking but automated stall rakes will displace thousands upon thousands of workers who are employed to sweep out barns of cattle and horses.

Retraining workers is not a path with a good end either. A worker who is laid off and retrained is the new guy in a different industry. That means lower pay for several years as a rule. That worker, who now earns less, will have less money to spend at other businesses and will pay less taxes as well. We have an oddity in that it is not the job that is important but the pay check is important to the entire system. In other words we need to supply good paychecks to keep the system running.

Jim Sadler
3rd September, 2013 @ 09:47 am PDT

You still have to shave and singe (ouch) the cow's teats with a quick blast of fire. At one point I saw a man cleaning the cow's teats, but I didn't see the machine doing it…

dsiple
3rd September, 2013 @ 11:02 am PDT

Oh man, I loved the James Herriot books. I read all of them around 1997-1998. I've forgotten all the details of the stories now but will gladly purchase the elecronic versions to read again. I laughed so hard it used to hurt. Just absolutely loved the man's writings.

habakak
3rd September, 2013 @ 11:20 am PDT

I have milked cows by hand and it's no joke, I had the power in my hands to rip phone books in half . I cant see this working in real life, but cows are smart and do eventually learn, so who knows? All you got to do is wash the girls down and they head over to the station for a snack, what looked like a handful of grain pellets, that was funny.. cows are so gullible.

but are a neat creature and I enjoyed working with them, I had a few trained to lead by the ear, just grab her ear and she would go anywhere eagerly.

Jay Finke
3rd September, 2013 @ 12:13 pm PDT

Cows are treated as machines now a days, you feed them in and you have an output (milk) as a response. Working with the resourses, including genetics open a huge space for improvements. The milk Industry is very competitive, every cent counts, so having automatic milkers like this have tremendous potential applications, provided they can be priced for the average small farmer, otherwise it will remain a luxury for the very big ones to enjoy. I wonder if such a system can be priced and scaled down to be used by the small growers in developing countries? Then we are talking about an impact!

MF

Max Fdez
3rd September, 2013 @ 02:03 pm PDT

Modern dairy cows have been selectively bred which increased milk production dramatically, but the cows are still usually only being milked twice a day. This means that for the last few hours before milking, the cows udders are over extended and the cows are "busting to go".

A fully robotic system means that the cows can be milked three or more times a day, which is not only good for the cows' welfare, but will increase the milk output for each individual cow.

Australian research showed an average 15% increase per animal for thrice-daily milked herds, with some individual animals producing up to 25% more milk. I would guess there would be efficiency gains for overall vet bills, feed, restocking rate etc following on from that increase.

Wombat56
3rd September, 2013 @ 03:41 pm PDT

I've seen this system work in Canada for the last 4-5 years.

What's new is the analyzing part of the machine maybe ?

Guy Lamoureux
3rd September, 2013 @ 06:07 pm PDT

Lely are not the only milking robot manufacturer, GEA has the MIone robot.

These things have their place but not all farming situations or herds suit robots and you usually need a few of them to cope with large herds

Ive seen a 60 bail rotary parlor with automatic cup removers milk up to 300 cows an hour with 1 skilled operator. Robots do 10-20 cows an hour

Kiwikitesurfer
4th September, 2013 @ 12:15 am PDT

To Jim Sadler:

Yup, you've hit the nail on the head there. While our whole society is predicated upon the idea that each adult has a 'job' which provides a 'pay packet' with which s/he can then buy everything s/he needs, we are simultaneously pushing highly-trained people out of their 'jobs' and taking away those 'pay packets'. As you say, when that person retrains, their new 'pay packet' is smaller. They then gain experience and increase that 'pay packet' until they get booted out of that one too. We humans lather, rinse and repeat, while all the time the corporations get fatter.

The only way to succeed in the world we have is to forget your human status and incorporate yourself as a business. Then _you_ can do the pushing. Buy robots! :)

dalroth5
6th September, 2013 @ 12:29 am PDT
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