When it comes to milking, the cows at Abiqua Acres Dairy near Silverton, Ore., call the shots.

Happier cows and a more flexible family life are the primary reasons owner-operators Alan and Barbara Mann, daughter Darleen Sichley and son-in-law Ben Sichley converted to robotic milking two years ago.

They built a new free-stall barn that provides cows with free access to milking robots, replacing a parlor in use since the 1950s. The new 35,000-square-foot barn also houses dry cows and includes a calving and special care pen.

“You’re still in the barn; you still have to be hands-on; you don’t put robots in and just walk away, but we’re not tied down to that twice-a-day milking schedule,” Darleen Sichley said.

The farm milks about 100 cows a day. The 100% registered Guernsey herd has been a lifetime project of the Mann family at the three-generation dairy; some of the cows can be traced back 18 generations.

Under the DeLaval robotic milking system, cows enter one of two milking stations when they feel like it — morning, noon, even midnight. Each station can handle about 60 cows a day.

“That’s the beauty of robotics,” Sichley said. “They set their own schedule. And that cow is giving more milk; she’s coming more times to get that pressure off her udder.”

The cows average 2.4 milkings per day.

Along the feed rail in the barn they’re fed a mix of hay, silage and cottonseed, which is regularly pushed within reach of the cows by a robotic feed pusher following a line of sensors in the concrete. Pellets, fed to the cows during milking, supply the remaining nutrients.

“A cow may hear the beep of the feed pusher at 2 a.m. and get up for a bite to eat,” Alan Mann said. “She sees that the robot’s not busy and takes the opportunity to get milked.”

A radio frequency identification tag in each cow’s ear lets the robot know who it is and whether she has milking permission, based on how long it has been since her last visit. It dispenses grain, cleans the teats and, using a map of her udder and a laser eye, attaches the teat cups.

When milking is complete, the animal’s teats are sprayed with a sanitizer, the milking unit is back-flushed and the animal walks away.

“It all takes about seven minutes and they’re on their way,” Sichley said. “The hardest part is getting the cow to come out. The robot is trying to avoid having leftovers, so feeding stops as a cow finishes its milking.”

That cow’s comprehensive record is on a screen nearby, showing such things as pounds per minute, how much each teat is giving and whether something is off with her milk. For instance, if she has a bloody quarter the robot discards that milk.

They enjoy watching the cows learn the system.

“Sometimes you’ll see one that knows she’s close to milking permission just hanging out by the robot until she knows it’s time,” Mann said.

The herd has 24-hour pasture access April through October. Many come in for water, see an open robot and go get milked. An automated sort gate doesn’t allow cows due for milking back out of the barn until they visit a milking station.

Meanwhile, chain scrapers slowly traverse the barn floor every couple of hours, doing away with the need to move cows out to scrape the alley by tractor.

One of Sichley’s favorite additions to the barn is two cow brushes. Through automatic controls, the cows start up the machine with a slight lift of the large, mounted brush.

“It’s a comfort and grooming thing and feels good,” Sichley said.

Their raised office overlooks the barn and cameras allow complete visibility. If there’s ever a doubt as to which cow had which calf, footage from the calving pen video settles the issue.

Information is also accessed on the office computer or by smartphone. If there’s an issue it sends an alarm.

“Monitors integrate with our management information so I can click on any cow and see how much milk she gave and her daily average; her age and how long she’s been in milk and all of her other information,” Sichley said. “We did all this on paper before.”

There are just three farms with milking robots in the Willamette Valley.

“I think in the next decade we’re going to see many more farms using robotics just because of labor issues,” Sichley said. “Low milk prices right now are holding back many farmers who might otherwise choose to transition to robotics.”

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