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Iowa family: Robotic milker lets them leave farm

BUFFALO CENTER, Iowa (AP)--Augie and Mike Baumann's approach to milking their 240-head dairy cow herd is strictly hands-off.

The father and son's cows walk, unprompted, into a computer-controlled robotic milking station where the robotics install the udders and suction the milk.

When finished, the cows walk back to their waterbeds and do what they do most of the time, which is take it easy.

Unlike humans, the robotic machine stands ready to milk 24/7. The farmer doesn't need to be on duty at 5 a.m. and 3 p.m. daily for the tedious and back-straining job of installing the udder cups onto each cow. The cow decides when it wants to be milked.

"Cows are different,'' said Mike Baumann. "Some want to milk just twice a day, some three or four times. They have that choice now.''

Based on their languid acceptance of robotic milking, the Baumanns' cows seem contented.

The Baumanns are contented, too, knowing they don't have to get up before dawn to do the milking and can take a weekend trip away from the farm, secure in the knowledge their cows still will be milked.

"I milked a lot of cows by hand when I was growing up,'' said Augie Baumann, 64. "But until this year, I just raised Holsteins and had other farms milk them. I didn't want to be tied to a milking schedule. That's no way to live.''

Dairy farmers can use any advantage they can get.

Milk prices have dropped from about 20 cents per pound early last year to under 10 cents per pound in recent months, primarily because of the loss of some export markets and the economic slowdown.

The dairy industry has always suffered through economic cycles because, unlike grains, milk is not easily stored to await better prices.

A single farmer can operate 1,000 acres or more of corn or soybean production for most of the growing season.

But a dairy farm of the Baumanns' size may need a half-dozen or more family members or employees (at prevailing wages of $10 to $12 per hour) to do the milking, even with mechanical milking parlors.

Augie Baumann said that since he began using the robotic system in February, his milk production is about 10 percent greater per cow than with the hand-controlled mechanical milking parlors that have been in widespread use on dairy farms since the 1950s.

Because of that greater yield and the reduced necessity for hired help, Baumann said he could justify the $600,000 he spent for the four robotic milking stations, about one-third more than the cost of hand-controlled parlor milkers.

Robotic milking requires a specially trained herd. The Baumanns bred their own Holsteins, then put them each through a two- or three-day training exercise to get them used to rising on their own and walking to the milking station.

"The cows are creatures of habit, after all,'' Mike Baumann said, as he watched heifers waiting in line to enter the milker.

At the station entrance, as the cow chews on some feed, a tag attached to its necklace alerts the machine's computer to the cow's identity.

In short order, the arm positions the milking box under the cow's udder, which is profiled in the computer.

Using the udder profile, laser beams guide the rubberized milking cups around the cow's teats, and a pulsating suction system takes over.

In short order, milk is pouring into the containers. The ever-vigilant computer measures the output of each teat.

For a smaller family dairy farm, the attraction of robotics is likely to be less the razzle-dazzle of the computer than the freedom from the milking schedule.

Smaller operators like the Baumanns can rarely afford the luxury of a weekend or even a day away from the farm. The tyranny of the milking schedule has driven many operators from the business.

"So much of that schedule often falls on the farm wife, who does the milking while her husband is in the field with the crops,'' said Chad Huyser, director of sales operations for the Lely Group of the Netherlands, which has developed and manufactures the robotic milkers.

David Cooper, editor of the "Milk Matters'' newsletter of Family Dairies USA in Madison, Wis., said the robotic milkers have been seen on at least two Wisconsin farms.

"As dairy operations get bigger, from the traditional 50-to-60-cow herd to 250 or more cows, more and more people will probably want to avoid not only the time issue for milking but the strain on the back that can come from traditional or parlor milking,'' said Cooper. "Anybody with more than 200 head of dairy cows probably will at least take a look at a robotic milker.''

Lely began producing the robotic milkers in the early 1990s and about 7,000 are installed in Europe. The milkers have been in use in the United States since 2002, mostly in big California dairies.

The mechanics of the Lely unit are similar to the robotics used in manufacturing. A city person might liken the automated movements to those of a carwash.

Lely now has a sales agreement with Vermeer Manufacturing of Pella to distribute the Astronaut milking system in the Midwest.

"We've had all kinds of 4-H and farm group tours to the farm to see it,'' said Huyser.

The Baumanns' contentment with their new system won't be complete until milk prices rise from their current level to at least 16 cents per pound, the break-even point for milk production, Augie Baumann said.

Even better would be the 19 to 20 cents per pound milk producers enjoyed as recently as the beginning of 2008, before prices crashed.

"The middlemen are taking more and we're getting less,'' said Mike Baumann.

He is a rarity among Iowa agriculturists: a University of Iowa graduate (in economics). He said the number of his fellow Hawkeye alums who are working farmers "is a very small group.''

"I figured I would learn everything I would need right on the farm, so I went to Iowa instead of Iowa State so I could learn something else,'' he said.

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