The University of Connecticut's (UConn) dairy herd is ranked in the top 20 of the more than 37,000 dairy herds nationwide. In keeping with those standards, UConn now has become one of the first universities in the U.S. to adopt a technologically advanced way of managing and studying a dairy herd, as two new robots have been introduced that enable the cows to choose when to be milked, according to an June 26 announcement in "UConn Today."
The new voluntary milking system will change the day-to-day lives of the herd. Previously, each cow was milked three times a day at the same times every day. When the cows were ready to be milked, they got noisy, said Steve Zinn, professor of animal science and department head in the UConn College of Agriculture, Health & Natural Resources.
There’s a different atmosphere in facilities with voluntary milking systems, he said. Since the cows are milked on demand around the clock, they are generally quiet and calm and spend a lot of time lying down relaxing.
New technology milks UConn's cows on demand around the clock, generating research data and another outcome. They are generally quiet and spend a lot of the time lying down relaxing. (Video by UConn)
When ready for milking, a cow walks to the robot, which starts each visit by washing the cow’s udders before attaching four separate milking units — one to each of the four quarters. If one quarter finishes milking before the others, that quarter’s machine will stop and be removed, which is likely more comfortable for the cow, while the other quarters finish being milked, the university said.
After six to eight minutes, and after around 30-50 lb. of milk have been collected, the milking units detach, and the cow walks away from the robot. With the new system, each cow is expected to visit the robots voluntarily one to four times a day.
The voluntary milking system also provides new research opportunities for UConn. Each cow will be wearing a smart device that will continuously collect data on various facets of cows’ behavior, such as their movement, how often they are milked and how much they produce, among many other things, the university said.
Besides potentially boosting milk production, the new system is expected to facilitate the collection of data and also reduce water usage. Since the robots are taking care of the milking, Zinn said this leaves more time for caretakers to manage the whole cow and gives researchers more time to conduct new and innovative research.
With more than 80 cows equipped with a smart device gathering data 24 hours a day, the new milking system means a flood of data will begin flowing as soon as the milk does.
All of these data need management, analysis and interpretation; that is where UConn Engineering comes in.
“We are working to figure out how we are going to use the data, how we analyze it and start making predictions with it,” said Matthew Stuber, assistant professor in the UConn department of chemical and biomolecular engineering.
Data on the cow’s movement — or lack of movement — can be an indicator of health, while data on milk quality can indicate what kind of grain is best for a particular cow.
In looking at the data, the engineers hope to develop ways to predict exactly how to optimize tailored conditions for the cows and achieve better outcomes for the facility overall.