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Dairy family adopts robots to work farm

The Austin Family Farm has gone through many changes in its 135-year history, from hand-milking to robots. But one thing has remained consistent — the family that owns it.

OAKVILLE, Wash. — Lasers and a 3-D camera locate the teats, a hydraulic arm positions the teat cups, the cow is comfortably enclosed as the robot milks her and the milk is immediately analyzed.

Ron Austin watches a touch screen that monitors the entire seven-minute process and remarks that things have sure changed over the past 135 years.

Since the new system came online in late June, he has found “Robots don’t mean no work, just more time in management and other parts of farming, like better pastures and better hay. This makes me a better farmer.”

Hand-milking was the technology of the day when his great-great-grandfather started raising pigs, trees and dairy cows here in 1878.

In 1939, nearby Fort Lewis needed more milk, so Ron’s grandfather and his dad, Jim, started focusing solely on dairy, still milking by hand.

The next technological leap was a surge bucket hooked to a leather strap around the cow’s back. Then came the building of a flat parlor in 1964, which could handle six or seven cows at a time, then a double-seven herringbone in 1980.

Austin first came across the robotic system when his brother-in-law saw a system operating in Wisconsin and was impressed by how the cows took to it. When Pacific Foods installed a unit, Austin went to an open house. When he returned home, he and his father started listing the pros and cons.

“There weren’t many cons,” he said.

The whole system, developed by DeLaval, was a nearly $500,000 investment, plus $40,000 in taxes that went into the community.

“I see it as a way for small farms to stay in business,” Austin said.

The Austins milk 120 cows, and this wasn’t a plan to expand the herd, Jim Austin said, “but we get half again as much milk per cow.”

“We expect the health of the cows to be a lot better,” he said. “Already they’re a lot calmer.”

The system also controls traffic with gates that open or close in response to a scan of the cow’s ear tag.

The first gate gives each cow “permission” to enter the parlor, depending on how many times she was milked that day, how much milk she has given and where she is in her lactation cycle.

As she leaves the milking barn, a gate directs her into a corral for mastitis treatment if the instant milk analysis indicates a high somatic cell count.

A third gate directs the cow either out to the pasture or to the free-stall barn.

“We’re getting about 2.3 turns (milkings per cow) a day,” Ron Austin said. “In winter we’ll likely be up to 2.8 or 3.0.”

“I can’t imagine 30 years from now,” Jim Austin said. “More analysis of milk maybe. All further DeLaval developments will be adaptable to the ones we have.”

Ron Austin said, “I foresee more and more robots and computer technology in not just dairy, but in all aspects of agriculture.”

As software is upgraded, he said, “The goal is that the machine will be more like a hand.”

Ron Austin, now 47, said the new system reaffirms his own intention to stay on the family farm: “It would be hard to drive by this and it not be my place.”

Another thing that hasn’t changed, he said: “Life still revolves around the milking.”



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