Robot technology: Consistent, efficient

By Ron Goble

HILMAR, Calif – The search for consistency and efficiency led Jersey dairymen Chuck Ahlem and his son and partner Mark, to adopt robot technology in their milking parlor.

Since January 2009, a robotic arm has been applying postdip iodine solution to the teats of Ahlem’s 2,700 Jersey milking herd 2X, except for four pens that make three trips through the 50-stall rotary parlor each day.

The project actually started two years earlier when engineers from Ram Mechanical (RMI) of Ceres, Calif. took on the challenge of designing the robot that applies teat dip for Green Source Automation (GSA).

The Ahlem project was the prototype for this postdip application, which now is also used at Pagel’s Ponderosa Dairy, MilkSource-Rosendale Dairy in Wisconsin and under construction at Fair Oaks Dairy, Indiana.

A new experience

“This company really stuck with it and adjusted to the challenges,” said Chuck Ahlem. “Introducing robots around animals was something they had to really work on and it took them a year longer than they thought it would. Working around cows and the movement was different. Green Source had previously worked on automation for bottling plants and glass plants. The dairy cow was a new thing for them to undertake.”

Ahlem said the robotic arm is from Fanuc Robotics model M7010 IC and is an “off the shelf” piece of equipment, but the tools and programming required by the robot were adapted by engineers from RMI.

Performance & efficiency

GSA combined the performance and efficiency of a rotary milking parlor with the consistency and accuracy of a commercial robot they call RotaryMATE. Focused on the post-dip labor position, the robot identifies and follows individual cow teats in real time.

“A stationary camera, located a few stalls ahead of the robot arm, tells the computer (and the robot) if there is a cow in the stall. But more important, if there is a cow in the stall it records whether there is a milking cluster still attached, what the cow’s leg placement is and udder height,” said Frank Dinis, herdsman for all four Ahlem dairies.

Once the computer knows the cluster is off the cow and things are clear, the robot enters the stall while the camera identifies cow teat placement in 3D for teat postdip application.The robot arm is equipped with four nozzles to apply the teat dip and sprays two at a time on each side of the udder.

Immediately after pulling out from under the cow, a squirt of clean water washes any iodine off the camera lens. The spray operation takes about 6 seconds per stall as the carousel turns at 8.5 seconds per stall. The robot arm moves with the carousel.

“You could go slightly faster, but then you get on the edge of pushing your milkers too much and quality of work suffers,”Chuck said.

Raised spreaders are mounted on the floor of each stall to help the cows keep their legs apart and in proper position for milking. “You don’t really realize how many cross-legged cows there are in the herd and the spreaders resolved that issue,” Chuck said.

“The robot has helped streamline our milking procedures.” stressed Mark. “Now milkers are covering less area it makes it much easier to get their routine down. We’re having less cows go around a second time.

“If the milker was busy postdipping and catching cows that hadn’t been milked out and reattaching units, she’d go back around again. Now that the robot is doing all the postdipping, the rover is able to catch things earlier,” he said.

Ahlem has three milkers and a pusher in their parlor operation, so they didn’t cut any positions. “If we were on a larger rotary, we could justify reducing the size of our milking crew,” said Mark.

“We could drop one milker,” interjected Chuck. “But I think the high quality, attention to detail and better herd health are good tradeoffs for keeping it as is. It just helps the milkers do a lot better job. The extra guy is sometimes pulled off to troubleshoot other problems as needed.

“The biggest plus with the robot is it doesn’t take lunch breaks, doesn’t mind working weekends, and doesn’t have any problems at home to worry about on the job,” he said with a smile.

Mark pointed out that iodine dip is the most expensive item on the list of parlor supplies and he believes they have cut the volume required to do the job by nearly 35%. The current system consistently applies dip to individual cow teats effectively and with lower usage and less waste.

“Not far down the road,” Chuck added, “Green Source is expected to switch from the current iodine dip to a foam solution that is even more efficient.” He indicated that the company has been very cautious not to move into any new changes until it is considered bulletproof.

“One feature of these robotic arms is you can get it out of your way,” said Chuck. “If all else fails and the thing goes down you can push it out of your way and go right on milking as you did before you adopted that technology. It’s not like you can’t operate the parlor without it.”

The price tag for the initial automation was approximately $300,000. Mark and Chuck called it a good investment when you consider the savings in supplies, how it frees up labor and allows your milkers to be more efficient while improving the quality of your operation.

“It’s the same thing every day. That’s one thing cows recognize. Any change or movement behind them is recognized by the cow. There is no surprise, so they are not nervous about something different from day to day,” said Chuck. “They are creatures of habit. Predip is next and we are excited about seeing them get that developed so we can have that consistency there too. Then the milkers just have to put the machines on.”

Not having to worry about pre- or postdipping will take a lot of pressure off the milkers, said Chuck.

On a larger rotary parlor the reduction in labor alone could be a most significant savings. The Ahlems have already determined to buy another robot for their new dairy in Texas, which features an 80-stall rotary.

“Most of the challenges during the project centered around computer programming,” said Mark. “They were continually upgrading the system and changing out parts that didn’t work quite as well as they had expected. Green Source was coming into the project without knowing what dairymen, his milkers and his cows would require.”

“We were the guinea pig for their development, but it was worth it,” added Chuck.


To contact Chuck or Mark Ahlem, or Frank Dinis at Charles Ahlem Ranch, Hilmar, Calif., call 209-668-0867.