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By Shirley Murtha
If you weren’t among the many visitors to the House of Hayes dairy farm (Sweet Pea Cheese) on Open Farm Day, you owe it to yourself to drive over to observe the new robotic milking process. Seemingly out of a science fiction novel, the cows now milk themselves 24/7, relieving the Hayes family of the chore that used to take 3 1/2 hours twice a day.
It takes just a little training to teach the cows to enter the milking station, which they happily do repeatedly to enjoy the grain treat provided at the front end of one of the two stalls set up in the barn. Once that training is completed, the rest is a piece of cake—or glass of milk in this case.
The Hayes’ approximately 130 cows are free to roam about the barn, and each wears a device similar to a Fitbit on her collar that identifies her to the robot. When she walks into the stall, the machine’s computer can tell if she has been milked within the past four hours. If she has, no grain will be provided and the air lock cylinders open the exit gate for her to leave. (Cows make multiple trips to the station in hopes of getting the treat and it would be wasteful to milk them again until they have accumulated a substantial amount of milk.)
If the cow is ready for milking, the robot goes into action. A tray with brushes slides under her teats to rinse off any debris. The tray swings back out, is cleaned, and an iodine-based disinfectant is added that will be applied to the teats. After a brief period of air drying, the milking device slides into position. A laser pinpoints the location of each of the four teats, and one by one, the inflations (milking tubes) are attached. Once all four are in position, the milking begins. When it is completed, the disinfectant is once again applied, the front gate opens and out walks the cow.
The machine does much more than milk the cow, however. It measures a number of parameters that give the farmer a picture of the cow’s health. It tells how far the cow walked around since the previous milking and it tracks the cow’s rumination — how much she’s been eating, “chewing her cud.” Once the milking begins, the machine takes the temperature of the milk, which is essentially the temperature of the cow. If it is too high, indicating the cow has a fever, the milk will be shunted to a separate collection vessel. The same holds true if the machine detects any blood in the milk, which might be present if the animal experienced any trauma since the last milking.
The robot washes itself three times a day, but the farmer still has to keep an eye on proceedings, checking that the containers of disinfectant and various cleaners are always stocked, for example. Also, the farmer has to check the computer read-out for the information on the cows’ health and to note any cows that have not been milked in more than 10 hours. Those cows have to be located and taken to the milking station.
The collected milk is tubed into the milk tank that Agri-Mark Cabot Creamery cooperative picks up every other day from the Hayes farm. Each collection is between 700 and 800 gallons. The Hayes milk goes to the plant in West Springfield, where it is processed for sale as drinking milk, butter, cream, powdered milk, and mixes that can be used for making milkshakes and ice cream. Hood’s and Friendly’s are just two of the facilities that buy from Agri-Mark. The Hayes keep some of the milk to self-process for their own use and for making yogurt and cheeses sold in the dairy store, Sweet Pea Cheese. They also make cheese and other products from the milk of their herd of goats.
In addition to purchasing the computer and robots, a new compressor was installed. New buildings were added onto the barn to house these components. A grant from the State of Connecticut by way of the Community Investment Act allowed the construction of a glass-windowed viewing room to allow visitors to observe this state-of-the-art milking process.