The decision to automate

Written by Christine Bush
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Heather was familiar with computers, so she prepared for the new system by dedicating much of her time to loading the information necessary for electronic tracking. She entered the cow’s birthdate, calving date, lactation number, responder number, breeding date and reproductive status. The responder number entered into the computer matches a collar made for each cow. The scanning system above the milking machine keeps track of which cow is entering the milking station.

Each time a cow enters the station, feed pellets drop. The pellets act as a reward and motivator to bring the cows back. If a cow returns to the milker too soon, the feed pellets disappear, the gate opens and the cow is released from the station. Once the cow is accepted into the milking station, information is gathered on the time since last milking, how much the cow milks and how long it takes to milk.

It was hard at first for Mike to embrace technology. He had never turned on a computer or used a smartphone, and he had to tackle both technology tools before the system came to the operation. Mike had a rough start.

“The first day I had this phone, I wanted to break it,” he says. “Then after a couple of days, I thought, this is pretty easy. All of the electronic stuff is pretty user friendly.”

With all of the preparation work done, the entire system went online May 28. Heather remembers because it was the first day the boys had off for summer, and they were excited to help.

“They came home from school and put their boots on right away,” she says. “They worked their tails off.”

The startup for robotic milking involves training for both the cow and the producer and is designed in a series of stages. The family knew it would take at least four weeks to get through the startup process, but for them, four weeks spread into 12.

For the first five to seven days, the cows were familiarized with the machines. They weren’t robotically milked, but walked through the area three times a day with everything in motion and making noise.

The first cow came through the test run with a real bang, literally. The sound and movement of the milking machine startled the cow and she swung about, breaking a window to the new office and denting the door to the electronics area.

“Every cow, when the arm came under them for the first time, they kicked the heck out of the machines,” Mike says. “It’s amazing the beating these things took.”

In the next phase, the cows were fetched off a last milking interval to the robot. The time for that varies from 8–12 hours. After a week or so of that schedule, the cows are allowed to make the decision to come to the milker. If she didn’t come and get milked, Mike had to find her and bring her in. As the Haineses recall, implementing the new system was harder on them than the cows.

During the first month and a half, the couple did not leave the barn unattended. Heather and Mike worked the operation from 5 a.m. until 11 p.m. Then Mike’s twin brother, Mark, would take the 11 p.m. to 5 a.m. shift. A shift included watching the video monitors and following up on computer alerts. The most likely source of a computer alert was if a cow didn’t come in for milking. Mike says he never thought he would reach the point where everything worked smoothly.