- Associated Press - Saturday, March 18, 2017

PLAINVIEW, Neb. (AP) - Robotic dairy operations may seem like a thing of the future. In fact, they were in Nebraska until last month.

That’s when the Demerath Farms dairy near here made state history when it began using four robotic milking systems on its expanding dairy operation. At maximum capacity, the dairy will milk 240 cows, three times a day, the Norfolk Daily News (http://bit.ly/2mUfbgZ ) reported.

Bill Demerath said the day-to-day work on the farm has, indeed, changed since the robots were installed Feb. 21.

“We’ll be able to come in and do our chores, but we can do them whenever we want,” Demerath said. “In the old (milking) barn, we would’ve walked in at 5:30 in the morning. Four hours in the morning, four hours in the afternoon we had to be milking cows, so we couldn’t get anything else done.”

For Demerath, the switch to robotic milking was a long process.

“I’ve been working with Norfolk Dairy Systems, and we’ve kind of been through five years of this to get to this point,” he said. “We wanted to increase the herd without increasing labor. We needed a new barn. Our other free-stall barn was 40-plus years old. So we decided to go with this.”

With the robots, the cows are able to essentially milk themselves.

“In this barn, they’ll milk 24 hours a day,” he said. “There’s just more flexibility, better flexibility.”

As part of the expansion of the operation, a new barn was built housing four robots, two on each side of the barn.

“Each robot can handle about 60 head. So we can do about 120 on each side,” Demerath said.

The cows wear an electronic collar that can track their activities and record information regarding milking. The collar identifies which cows are being milked, and information is sent to Demerath’s smartphone.

The cows had to be trained to use the robots, just as their human handlers did. They are fed a pelleted feed while being milked by the robot. It’s used as an incentive for them. If they come to the robot to be milked, they receive their pelleted feed.

The robot works by attaching to each of the four quarters of the cow’s udder and then detaching when the cow is milked - all on its own.

The milk is then transported to a bulk tank - a large storage tank that keeps the milk cool until it can be put on a truck and hauled away. But the milk must go through a cooling process to take it from the cow’s temperature, 104 degrees, to the temperature of milk in the bulk tank, 38 degrees. A plate cooler is used to cool the milk.

“We’re dropping that to 55 degrees before it hits the bulk tank, and that’s just with ground water. All you’re doing is just running milk by water to cool it. That’s what a plate cooler is,” Demerath said.

The milk is sold to Associated Milk Producers Inc., which picks it up every other day.

Demerath said training the cows is going better than expected.

“Things are going very well. Even the guys who put the robots in said our cows are taking to it extremely well compared to some other barns. So I was amazed,” he said.

The cows also are offered every comfort when they are not being milked. They have access to large brushes that they can utilize as back scratchers.

“It’s just for comfort. It gives them something to do, helps to keep themselves clean,” Demerath said. “It stimulates blood flow in the cow. It’s relaxing to them.”

Demerath said time that used to be spent milking can now be devoted to other tasks, such as cleaning stalls more frequently.

“Happy cows, comfortable cows. That’s the whole thing. That’s why we have sand bedding,” he said.

The sand is placed in single-cow stalls in the center of the four pens where cows can lay down when they are not eating or being milked.

Then, when they are hungry or are ready to be milked again they are able to leave the bedded stalls, and the process starts over again.

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Information from: Norfolk Daily News, http://www.norfolkdailynews.com

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