Early in the 20th century, dairy operators traded their milking stools for machines to produce enough dairy products to meet growing consumer demand, according to the University of California Division of Agriculture & Natural Resources.
The technological developments were critical to the formation of California's dairy industry, the largest in the nation, the university noted. Today, more than 1.7 million cows produce 39.8 billion lb. of milk in California each year, according to the California Milk Advisory Board.
The march of progress continues, with California's dairy industry beginning to integrate robots and sophisticated computer software into cow barns to maintain the dairy supply. University of California Cooperative Extension (UCCE) scientists are helping the industry adapt to the new technologies.
“Dairy production is automated, but it is still a very labor-intensive activity,” said Fernanda Ferreira, UCCE dairy specialist based at the University of California Veterinary Medicine Teaching & Research Center in Tulare, Cal. “Farmers always tell us that the most challenging thing they are facing is labor — labor availability, training and cost.”
Milking robots — a technology already being used in dairies in the Midwest and eastern U.S., Europe, South America and Canada — promise greater automation, reduced labor needs and improved animal welfare, the university said.
The machines are computerized boxes large enough to fit one cow, with a robot arm programmed to reach under the cow and clamp onto the teats. Cows do not need to be led to the milking machine but, rather, walk into the box voluntarily when they are ready to be milked.
The machine recognizes each individual cow by a computer tag around her neck or on her ear and provides personalized milking service. The robots do all the work: clean the teats, attach the milking machines and disinfect the teats after the milking is done. While milking, the robot collects data on the cow's output and health.
"When it comes to California and all the West, these are very new," Ferreira said. "We're talking herds that have 1,800 cows, on average -- huge herds. Since each of the robotic units, which serve 60-70 cows, costs about $120,000, we're also talking about a huge investment.”
According to UCCE, two San Joaquin Valley dairies have already installed milking robots, and many others are interested in the new technology. Ferreira and other researchers in Tulare are collaborating with one of them to study how the machine and the herd's management can be adapted to better serve large-scale dairy herds like those in California.
“Our idea is to first understand the perspective of the producers who have cows being milked by robots. We want to know what they have learned so far, the challenges they have encountered, their relationship with banks,” Ferreira said. “Relationships with banks are important, because most dairies will need to borrow funds to equip their facilities with enough robots for full automation.”
Future research will review issues of milk quality and mastitis management and determine what data farmers will need from the computerized system to improve dairy profitability.
“There are a lot of options available from companies that manufacture the robots. We want to fully understand how they work for our farmers and cows to be able to inform the future of California's dairy industry,” Ferreira said.