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  When Star Wars meets the Milky Way

In his futuristic novel "Animal Farm," George Orwell would have had the perfect settings for a piece of equipment poised to hit the market.

Touted as being ultra-efficient and the answer to dairy producers' perennial time troubles, one company is calling its new invention the Voluntary Milking System, or, in real terms, a Robotic Milker.

"One stall, one box," says Thierry Perrotin, marketing director for Alfa Laval Agri Inc.

"A cow will visit the stall, enter and automatically it will be kept inside that stall. The robotic system will take over and start automatically."

"When you milk 24 hours a day there's no shutdown," says Perrotin. "Milk is flowing all the time ... you need to empty the bulk tank. You need a milk cooling system, a special tank in between to be a buffer tank."

The unit itself, an awesome looking piece of equipment to say the least, is designed to one day fulfill all the cow's needs, says Perrotin, who admits the milker is so new, there's a lot he doesn't know about it yet. He says, however, the idea is that the VMS will make all the decisions and do all the work.

"It's on demand milking ... 24 hours a day, seven days a week ... When the cow feels she's ready to be milked, she'll go into that box and the system will decide if she's ready to be milked based on history. If she's ready, the robot will milk her."

Designed to work with little or no human intervention, the robot will also have to make other crucial decisions in the milking process, says Perrotin. "It will decide if the milk is good enough to be put in the milk tank or rejected. The cow is then released"

As the company heads toward its release date for VMS, possibly in the year 2000, Perrotin says marketing efforts will focus on freeing up time for dairy farmers. He says dairy producers have to be on hand or have someone else in the barn to attach milking units "at a very precise time morning and night." With three times a day milking, Perrotin continues, "it's even worse." The robot, he says, will free up that time.

"It allows farmers to have a life. They can go fishing, they can go to a restaurant.

Instead of being held hostage to that kind of routine, they can dedicate time to better management and better overall supervision of the herd."

Asked if the sterile nature of robotic milkers will have any adverse affect on milk production, Perrotin doesn't really answer the question, perhaps because it's a variable not fully known yet.

"The only human contact today is just prepping a cow, stimulating the cow, udder preparation and applying disinfectant prior to milking. That's pretty much the only human touch.

"That will be gone," Perrotin continues, "replaced by the functions of the robot."

Joyceville dairy producer Bill Moreland isn't so sure. "Cows respond to kindness and gentleness," said Moreland, when asked by the AgriNews to give an opinion on the new milkers.

"The machine is sterile. It's not cruel to the animals but it's not going to give them a little scratch on their side either."

On the other hand, Moreland reasons, it may just be a matter of the herd becoming accustomed to a new method.

"Cows are creatures of habit," says Moreland, referring to his own herd of about 60 Holsteins. "If the machine is creature friendly, they'll probably get fairly used to it."

Moreland, who admits he likely wouldn't make such a dramatic change in the operation "at my age," says even if his son were interested, the family would have a number of concerns.

For starters, says Moreland, "there are certain cows we can milk in our barn that can be milked by man but not by a machine." Another practical consideration, he says, is that the barn would have to be completely modified to be free stall, an expensive proposition when added to the original cost of the unit itself. Under such a system, he says, "a certain percentage of the herd would just get weeded out."

But the main area of concern for Moreland, is in the workings of the robot. He's not convinced the average farmer would be able to cope with it.

"The ordinary laymen is out of his league ... There's a lot of electronics and robotics involved. Those things go wrong," he says. "No matter how well they're made, they go wrong."

Moreland says literature put out by one of the companies marketing a robotic milker suggest farmers have to be located relatively close to a technician in order to have a system set up in the barn. "There's a tremendous amount of knowledge you have to pick up in order to trouble shoot it," says Moreland, adding that he's also read a technician will stay with the farmer for a while after purchase to get him up and running.

In spite of a cautious approach, Moreland says he can see that for some in the dairy industry, the system would work. "It's not really going to replace a milking parlor if they're milking 300 cows," he says, adding that it's designed, from what he's read, to handle "60-80 cows per unit, per robot.

"It's aimed at the average farmer ... There's probably a certain amount of need. If you have your own family for labour, that's good. But if you have to hire a labourer, that's more of a complication."

According to Thierry Perrotin, Alfa Laval has not yet put a final price tag on the robotic milker. Moreland figures it would be somewhere around a "quarter of a million dollars."

According to Perrotin, the company has been working "for years" in Sweden, developing and testing the VMS. An official unveiling in Canada is scheduled for the end of September in Peterborough when one unit will be on display.



Eastern Ontario AgriNews is published on the third Monday of each month. The printed version is distributed free by postal mail to farms in Eastern Ontario, Canada.

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