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Published December 10, 2009, 12:48 PM

Cows milk themselves

Robotic milking machines are doing the work for dairy farmers in Ohio.

By: Kathy Lynn Gray, Associated Press

PLAIN CITY, Ohio — Every dairy farmer’s dream is playing out at the Gruenbaum family farm.

The cows milk themselves.

No kidding.

The farm in this community outside Columbus is the first in Ohio to install robotic milking machines that allow cows to be milked whenever they want without a human hand touching them.

“It’s just amazing what it’ll do,” said Kenneth Gruenbaum, 66, as he watched cow after cow meander into a stall at their farm and give milk through a machine.

It’s a sea change for Gruenbaum, who grew up milking cows by hand on the 144-year-old farm he now shares with 40-year-old son David.

Five weeks ago, the Gruenbaums installed two robotic units, each with its own stall and milking machine, manufactured by Lely Group in the Netherlands. Since then, they’ve been teaching their 105 cows how to self-milk.

Cows walk into the stall, lured by food. The machine’s arm positions itself beneath the bulging udder, and small brushes wash the cow’s teats. Four tubes, called cups, swing out, and one attaches itself to each teat with the help of a laser scanning device.

The milk flows into the cups, then through a system of pipes into a large container. The cups disengage when the udder is empty, and the cow moves out of the stall. The entire process takes about six minutes.

“It’s just jaw-dropping to see how everything works,” said Sandra Gruenbaum, Ken’s wife and David’s mother.

“We had one individual (who expected) robots that looked like little men doing the milking.”

Besides eliminating the back-breaking work of attaching milking cups to cow teats by hand, the robotic machines make for a healthier herd, said David Gruenbaum.

Sensors monitor each cow, recording the animal’s weight, milk output and milk quality and how often it goes in to be milked.

And because the cows are being milked more often than the usual twice a day, they have had no cases of serious mastitis — inflammation of the udder. They used to average one a week, the younger Gruenbaum said.

Rick Rugg, regional salesman for Lely, said about 200 Lely robotic milking machines will be installed in the United States by the end of the year. Minnesota, New York, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin have the most, and an Illinois farm is firing up that state’s first one this week.

“We’re pretty excited about the future in the U.S.,” Rugg said.

Globally, Lely has sold 9,000 robotic machines, which it calls the Lely Astronaut. Another company, Sweden’s DeLaval, has sold about 6,000 worldwide, a company representative said.

Rugg said 65 percent of new milking machines installed in western Europe are robotic.

Lewis Jones, chief of Ohio’s division of dairy, said the machines were approved for use by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration eight years ago.

He doesn’t know how many of Ohio’s 3,300 dairy farms might opt for the new technology, which has a price tag of about $200,000 per unit.

David Gruenbaum said he and his dad started looking at the milking machines two years ago when they needed to replace their 25-year-old milking parlor.

“We were considering selling the herd,” he said.

Then he saw a self-milking machine on the Internet, investigated it and decided to try it.

Since its installation, a number of dairy farmers have stopped by to see how the system works and quiz David Gruenbaum on its success.

At first, the Gruenbaums had to herd the cows together and push each one into the stalls. But within two weeks, about 90 percent learned to enter on their own.

The chance to eat and be milked is the attraction.

If milk prices are favorable, David Gruenbaum expects the machines to pay for themselves within five years because of reduced labor costs and increased milk production.

As with all new technology, not everyone’s thrilled, said Mrs. Gruenbaum. “Some of our cows are saying, ’Not this lady. I’m old, and I’m not going in there.”’

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