More Robots, Less Farmers – Company Installs 12,500th Robotic Cow Milking System

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To commemorate there 12,500th customer, Lely held a contest in which farmers created videos that showed just how awesome robotic milking is.

A decreasing number of farmers are getting their hands dirty, lest they gunk up their smartphone. Dutch maker of farming technologies, Lely, recently installed their 12,500th cow-milking robot. That means that hundreds of thousands of cows all over the world are producing tens of millions of liters of milk per day at the pumps of robots rather than the hands of farmers.

If you’re not familiar with Lely’s Astronaut A4 robotic milking system, it’s essentially a boxed area that the cows walk into and are milked – at their leisure. The cow just walks into the milking station, 3D cameras target their teats with a ‘teat detection system,’ and milks the cow. After milking a series of brushes cleans the cow and a swinging feeding trough “encourages” the cow to leave and make way for the next in line.

The appeal of the Astronaut A4 isn’t only that it automates the milking process, it also automates milk testing right at the milking station and pushes the data to the farmer’s smartphone. Detecting a bacterial breast infection called mastitis, and measuring fat, protein and lactose levels allow the farmer’s to monitor the quality of their milk. An automated brush system not only cleans the cows and cuts down on milk contamination, but through tactile stimulation will trigger the hormone oxytocin that stimulates milk production. Milking speed and dead milking times are also monitored so the farmer can make adjustments if he needs to to increase productivity.

The end result is reduced labor costs and increased productivity. According to Lely, the Astronaut system produces 10 to 15 percent more milk than conventional farmers who typically milk twice a day.

It’s the state-of-the-art, automated cow milking system that farmers have grown to love.

To commemorate their 12,500th customer, Lely launched a video competition in which users produced videos showing how they use the Lely Astronaut system and how it affects their farm. The winner, announced in January, was the Smit Family farmers. After seeing a few of the runner-up videos, it’s obvious to me that these guys put a lot more effort into winning points for creativity.

Lely isn’t limited to cow-milking platforms but provides a suite of technologies to meet a variety of farming needs like forage harvesting vehicles, automated feeding systems, and robotic barn cleaners. To meet increasing demand from customers in North America they’ve built a US headquarters in Pella, Iowa that will officially open on March 29th. They also opened a center in Bain-de-Bretagne, France last year.

From GPS-guided tractors to fleets of weed-clearing robots, technology continues to change the meaning of a day’s work on the farm. The advent of tractors in the early 20th century was a striking example of how technology could transform the industry. The hands off milking system that the Astronaut A4 provides allows farmers to spend less time milking and more time managing the health of their heard as a whole from their smartphone. The growing popularity of the platform is a testament to its cost-effectiveness. While it’s not clear that it makes the cows happier, as Lely claims, what is clear is that the platform sure has farmers whistling Dixie.

[image credits: Lely]

images: Lely
video: Contest Winner

Peter Murray

Peter Murray was born in Boston in 1973. He earned a PhD in neuroscience at the University of Maryland, Baltimore studying gene expression in the neocortex. Following his dissertation work he spent three years as a post-doctoral fellow at the same university studying brain mechanisms of pain and motor control. He completed a collection of short stories in 2010 and has been writing for Singularity Hub since March 2011.

Discussion — 3 Responses

  • khorporative March 8, 2012 on 7:20 am

    Yeah, right! Instead of recognizing cows as sentient beings and stopping exploiting them unnecessarily, let us go easy on ethics and connect them to robots, thus creating impersonal milk production cyborgs of a sorts.

    To be clear, I am for discontinuation of animal abuse practices altogether, not merely against introducing robots into the equation that will clearly aggravate the situation in terms of (human) morality, cows (as victims) and ecology.

    This is clearly a progress technology wise. But that also makes us more inhumane as a species and indulges our desire to look another way when the interests of weaker beings are at stake. Might is right?! A truly (trans)humane approach.

    • turtles_allthewaydown khorporative March 8, 2012 on 12:43 pm

      This isn’t making the cows lives any worse, and the manufacturer claims it improves their lives. It seems the cows can choose their own schedule for being milked, which is a positive step for the cows. Calves don’t nurse just twice a day, so this would be a more natural arrangement.

      • khorporative turtles_allthewaydown March 8, 2012 on 3:33 pm

        That begs the main question whether we should exploit the cows in the first place.

        Furthermore, scientific evidence convincingly tells us that we can do well without any product of animal origin. Which renders “necessary evil” (of animal exploitation) into just “evil”.

        Besides, even with this sophisticated milking machine the cows are still raped (euphemism: artificially inseminated) and their calves are killed for meat (causing both the death in cow’s child and psychological damage of mother’s separation to the cow).

        Dairy cows are killed for meat around the 4th year of their life due to further milking inefficiency (the result of systematic overmilking and body decay). As compared to natural lifespan around 20 years.

        But this all is quite irrelevant. The very first question needs to be answered. How can we morally justify using sentient beings for our selfish needs (that could be satisfied in other ways)?

        Robot or no robot, can you see how human can be inhumane, and proudly so? Accepted by society, multiplied by industry, the massive animal abuse goes unnoticed.

        Is this what we want? How can we even dream of being benign then in any meaningful way?