America's 60,000 dairy farms produce roughly 80 billion litres of milk annually, more than 8700 litres per year, per cow! Getting all that milk out of their udders and into fridges has always been a bit of a chore for both the farmer and the heifer, but this new, laser-guided milker makes the practice nearly automatic.
Built by Dutch agricultural firm Lely, the Astronaut A4 is the latest and greatest in fully automated milking technology. While auto-milking technology has been used in the dairy industry for decades, the systems have almost always required a human supervisor to ensure that the bovine is properly situated, the teatcups are attached correctly, and a host of other chores that adds downtime to the milking process. That's not a huge deal when you've only got 20 heads of cattle to milk in a day, but it's an entirely other animal when you've got 135.
That's why the A4 is purpose-built for efficiency. Since cows are apparently really terrible at turning (Cows: Nature's Derek Zoolander), the gated milking stall is built so that the bovine moves straight through the stall during the process. The cow walks into the stall, pokes its head through the front grate into the feeding trough. The A4 reads the animal's numbered collar, pulls up her preferred feed quantity — dispensing a controlled amount per their individual diets — and current milk production rates. While the cow is chowing down on her treat, a laser-guided suction arm swings under the udder and automatically attaches a set of teatcups to begin the milking. Once the cow has been sufficiently drained, the front gate opens, allowing the cow to quickly exit the stall and the next one to amble in.
Each of these $200,000 machine is able to milk up to 70 cows in a day. That's far more expensive than a bucket and stool but the system reportedly pays for itself over time by increasing milking productivity by up to 10 per cent over older auto-milking methods.
"We see these machines going in either when there is a change of generations or when the burden of the milking parlor becomes too much for an older generation," says Lely's Ben Smink. "Because the system is automatic it makes it possible for older people to still manage their whole dairy." Given that the average age of the American dairy farmer is now pushing 57 years, they're going to need all the robotic assistance they can get. [Lely via Modern Farmer - EPA - USDA - Purdue]