Your Next Glass of Milk May Come From Happier Cows Thanks to Technology

Robots in the cowshed

Key Takeaways

  • Dairy farmers are using robots to keep cows happy and produce more milk. 
  • The robot milking machines are part of a growing wave of automation in the agricultural industry. 
  • New tech is boosting robot milkers.
Holstein dairy cows eating grass silage in a milking barn.

Andrew Linscott / Getty Images

Soon, your morning glass of milk may arrive thanks to a robot. 

Dairy farmers are increasingly turning to robots to increase milk production, according to a new study. The robots can make the tenuous farming business profitable for small farmers and increase income for large companies. It's part of a growing wave of automation in the agricultural industry. 

"Robotic milking is reaching far into the dairy industry to help automate the milking process and gather data, and improve cattle nutrition," Roshan Pinto, head of manufacturing at the digital products company Tavant, which works with agriculture and other industries, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

The Robots Are Coming

Many dairy farmers are turning to robots because they lessen the need for human labor.

"In a tight labor market, transitioning to robots can have a significant return on investment for farms," David Darr, senior vice president at the industry group Dairy Farmers of America, told Lifewire in an email interview. 

Robots also let cows be milked as often as they would like. Allowing cows this choice can increase milk production per cow, Darr said. Farms also get real-time information on milk volume, quality, and components when using a robotic system.

The global milking machine market size is expected to grow from $3.67 billion in 2020 to $4.22 billion in 2021, according to a recent report by the Business Research Company. 

Overall, the number of dairy farms is shrinking. In 1970, America had 650,000 dairy farms with 12 million dairy cows. In 2017, there were 40,200 dairy farms with 9.4 million dairy cows.

New tech is boosting robot milkers. This year GEA Farm Technologies, a German company offering milking machines, announced a new generation of the DairyRobot R9500. The company claims the new system ensures minimized system downtime, improved serviceability, and lower maintenance cost.

Many farmers report that they are happy with robot dairy machines even though the gadgets can cost tens of thousands of dollars to millions depending on their complexity and the number of cows being milked. 

... the use of technology (including robotics) can help ensure high levels of animal care and quality milk production.

"Major benefits would be that you don't have to milk cows," wrote user Wilder91 on Reddit. "Production generally goes up a bit because there are more milkings a day. The cows are happy. Major downsides. Chores never stop. The robot runs 24h a day, and somebody gets the job of answering when it calls."

In addition to milking, robots feed cows and calves and administer vaccines. Other automated systems sort animals into pens, analyze milk production, and clean enclosures. 

Dairy producers are also increasingly using collar sensors to help detect disease signals in livestock by constantly monitoring biological information, Pinto said. For example, in the UK, the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre in Shepton Mallet tested 5 G-connected collars and tags on their dairy cows and collected the data to track the eating patterns, rumination, fertility, and day-to-day health of each specific cow. 

"While people will always be critical to dairy farm operations, the use of technology (including robotics) can help ensure high levels of animal care and quality milk production," Darr said. 

Not Your Grandfather’s Farm

Farming is turning to tech beyond dairy cows, experts say. Farmers are exploring the use of drones to monitor, fertilize, and increase the yield of their fields.

A cow brush in a cowshed.

Mint Images / Getty Images

"Visual data collected from these drones can help the farmer understand if any specific areas are pest-ridden, allowing them to give specific pest control solutions instead of a crop-wide spray," Pinto said. 

Even scarecrows are getting an upgrade. Laser scarecrows keep birds from crops by emitting green laser light that people cannot see in the sun. Birds are sensitive to the color green. 

One problem is that these tech advances often rely on broadband internet, which many rural areas lack.

"Without fiber-optic broadband connectivity, the benefits of smart technology cannot be leveraged," Pinto said. "Even independent devices, such as tags used for farm livestock yield data, can be aggregated to the farmer's advantage. In addition, broadband plays a vital role in transferring data to other locations, wholesale markets, and field hands."

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