- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 16, 2007

Technology usually makes a person’s life easier, but at Hope Acres farm in Brogue, Pa., bovines benefit from computers and lasers.

A third-generation dairy farm, the 1,600-acre facility owned by the Heindel family has invested in robotic milking stations that give the cows in the herd of more than 200 control over their milking schedule.

Hope Acres conducts 75-minute tours of the facility. Guide Kelly Fisanich-Waby pulled up a milking stool between sessions to discuss the magic behind robotic milking.

Why does each animal wear a necklace or collar? Each animal has a collar, and it is an individualized radio frequency for that cow, and the computer picks up that information.

Basic information — number, name, date of birth and when she milks; it keeps track of her data down to amount of milk, bacteria count, how much each quarter of her udder is giving, total number of lactation dates. Pretty much everything we need.

How does the farm balance the cost of the $165,000 robotic milkers? I would definitely say it must work its way out because we have been successful. We have two robotic milkers that we just upgraded in February, and we have purchased a third. The herd is getting bigger, and we get almost three milkings per day. In the big picture, it is a more economical way of farming.

In addition, we only need two full-time, 24/7 farmers for the entire herd. If we were to have hands milking the cows, it would take four to six persons working full time, and we would not be able to get the same volume of milk.

The cows are very good at waiting their turn. How are they trained to enter the milkers? We have a two-week training program where the cow gets her collar and works with the farmer. The farmer will, twice a day for two weeks, physically walk the new cow to the milker, through the one-way gate, and she waits in line for her turn.

She goes into the milker, and as soon as the computer reads her collar and accepts her for milking, right away a “cow cookie” drops down — and it is primarily chocolate and molasses. They love them, and [that] entices them to come back again and again. While she enjoys her cookie, the robotic arm moves under her belly, and orange-and-white brushes that are completely cleaned after each use move into place and clean each of her teats.

The brushes move out of the way, and infrared lasers locate the teats and program suction milkers to hook up to each one. The milk is suctioned through tubes into a jar, and as soon as that milk starts to come out, the computer is analyzing the milk to make sure it is good milk, looking for infection, blood, anything that would make it bad milk. If a cow is on medication, for instance, it is deemed bad milk and dumped while the good milk goes into a larger holding tank.

If, during the process, anything goes wrong — the machine doesn’t work as expected or there is a problem with anything at all — the computer calls the farmer on his cell phone. The entire process that takes place in the barn can literally happen without a human being in the barn.

The barn is not quite the same as one would expect based on traditional barn knowledge. We do everything we can to ensure that the cows are clean, healthy and happy. We have waterbeds for the cows. … The bed is a thick bladder that is 4 inches deep, and over top we have a rubber mat, and on top of that we have ground peanut shells.

The purpose of the waterbeds is to protect the cows’ hips from damage that might happen lying on a hard surface or just a hay mat. The dairy cows have jutting hip bones, and lying on a hard surface could cause discomfort and possible arthritic conditions.

The same with the rubber coating on the floor; it makes for a more comfortable surface for them to walk on when they are in the barn.

Is your milk considered organic? No, we cannot use “organic” because our farm butts up to other farms that we cannot control. But we do not use any form of growth hormones or antibiotics on our cows. If they must be medicated, the collar is programmed or they are moved to the sick bay in the maternity barn.

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