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Robotic milkers produce big data for UConn's lauded dairy herd

BY Joe Cooper

7/23/2018
Photos | UConn
Photos | UConn
UConn's dairy operators at the Kellogg Dairy Center in Storrs are using robotic milkers to better track and manage the health of the school's cow herd.
Robotic milkers are helping UConn's nationally acclaimed dairy herd run away from the pack.

In May, UConn Storrs became one of the first campuses in the nation to launch an automatic milking system that allows its herd of dairy cows to be milked when they're ready, rather than on a set, three-times-a-day schedule.

In addition to freeing up UConn staff from the utterly monotonous work of milking, the on-demand, technology-driven system also allows the school's researchers to better track and manage the health of its herd.

UConn is using two, $200,000 robots in addition to sensors that collect real-time data 24 hours a day to predict the healthfulness of about 88 cows and monitor their physical environment. The school added 3,000 square feet at its dairy center to house the new machines.

UConn's dairy operators at the Kellogg Dairy Center, as well as faculty from the school's animal science and engineering departments, will use the data to measure how much a cow needs to be fed, her daily movements and milk quality and quantity. These measurements can indicate the amount and nutritive value cows should be fed, officials said.

Sensors also report a cow's scale of rumen acidity, or pH levels, which can signal any digestive problems.

The big data elevates UConn's ability to ensure each cow stays healthy, said Steven Zinn, a professor and department head of the animal science unit.

"We are feeding the cows based on their nutritional needs," Zinn said. "We are trying to use the data and develop models to better manage cows."

UConn's dairy brass hope their robotic milkers will allow other Connecticut farmers to investigate the costly technology from an unbiased research group vs. listening to a sales pitch.

"We want to have the most up-to-date technology, but also have outreach to producers who want to adopt this technology," Zinn said. "We are a resource for this information."

Robotic milkers don't generally increase production of the school's milk, although that could be an added benefit down the road. UConn cows currently produce about 2.5 million gallons of milk a year.

UConn sells its milk mainly to the Agri-Mark Co-op, one of New England's largest farm milk suppliers. UConn's dairy heard milk is also used to make the ice cream produced at the heralded UConn Dairy Bar and a small amount is sold to Bear's Smokehouse Barbecue.

All revenues cover the cost of managing UConn's barns, equipment, veterinary care, fees and student labor. Remaining dollars go toward academic programs.

Learning curve

Like a dog in training, Zinn and his staff use cattle feed to train cows to walk into the robots. After three weeks, nearly half of the school's 200 cows learned to migrate into the robotic milkers, he said.

Prior to harvesting milk, the robots begin by cleaning a cow's udders before a laser-guided mechanical arm places the machine on the cow's teat. With robots, cows are milked anywhere from six to 32 minutes a day producing between 30 to 50 pounds of milk at each milking; at parlors where humans place milking machines on cows, rather than robots, it can take up to three to five hours daily to milk an individual cow.

UConn's robotic milking units are able to distinguish between each cow to improve speed and automatically release them from the station when they're finished milking.

On average, a cow milking two times per day, producing 40 pounds each time, would produce more than 29,000 pounds per year.

"The cows are using their feed more efficiently and we are going to be able to manage them more efficiently," Zinn said.

Leading the herd

UConn's "precision dairying" efforts are a major victory for the school, which has been working to bring the technology — developed in the 1990s — to Storrs since 2015.

Although dairy herds at Michigan State University and Alfred State College in New York acquired the robotic milkers prior to UConn, Connecticut's flagship state university was the nation's first research intensive school to house the technology on campus, Zinn said.

Meantime, there are more than 35,000 robotic milkers in operation worldwide.

Notoriety surrounding UConn's dairy herd is nothing new. In recent years, the Hoard Dairyman, a popular dairy farming publication, named UConn's herd one of the top 20 out of about 47,000 in the U.S.

UConn has also scored numerous awards for milk quality over the last decade from Agri-Mark and the Progressive Breeders Registry, which recognizes the nation's top herds under the Holstein Association, the world's largest dairy breed association.

"We have a dairy manager and staff who pay very close attention to the health of the cows and the health of the udder and the quality of the milk," Zinn said of the center's success.

Zinn says his dairy team is working to fully optimize the robotic milking data.

In support, UConn faculty have already applied for a $1.5 million federal grant under the umbrella of the National Science Foundation and U.S. Department of Agriculture. The grant will enable UConn to retrofit video cameras to each cow and develop new management systems.

The hope is, he said, UConn will secure the annual funding before the advanced technology becomes common among research universities.