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Robots ease life for Cape Vincent dairy farmers

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CAPE VINCENT — Gregory P. and Todd W. Mason, brothers and co-owners of River Haven Farm, used to commonly spend more than 10 hours a day milking cows.

That laborious schedule ended March 15 with the arrival of a pair of sophisticated milk robots.

The Masons said Tuesday their lifestyle has greatly improved thanks to the automatic technology that runs 24 hours a day, seven days a week at a milking parlor designed and built last year for the equipment. The Masons spent the past month training to use the automatic robots, manufactured by the Lely Co. in the Netherlands. Though the Lely Astronaut A4 robots had a combined price of $400,000, the Masons calculated the farm will be better served by robots than workers. The automated equipment is a new chapter for the dairy industry in the north country, Todd said, where finding reliable workers is a challenge for every farm that needs to hire them.

“We used to have two extra guys working for us, but now we need only one part time,” said Todd, who spent more than a year researching the robots with his brother before making the investment, which was financed by a seven-year loan. “We calculated how much we would pay immigrant workers for 10 years and found the robots to be less expensive. So we decided, why not be efficient with our time and equipment?”

Entering the 15,000-square-foot milking parlor Tuesday, 73-year-old Paul C. Mason, who sold the farm to his sons in 2003, described the inner workings of what first looked like a puzzling scene. Cows wearing numbered red collars with transmitters pushed their way through one-way gates at both sides of the barn. These gates lead to a common milking area in the middle of the parlor where cows may decide at any time to enter the two robot stations to be milked. Mr. Mason said grain bins inside the gated stations induce the cattle to move inside to be milked by the robot. For the cows, he said, the cornmeal “tastes like candy” compared to silage cows are fed at stalls; it’s like a dessert that supplements their main course.

Once a cow enters a station and dips its head into the bin, the transmitter on its collar is scanned by a device inside it, triggering the entrance and exit gates to lock. The robot then instantly takes over, swiftly moving underneath the cow to clean its udder with revolving brushes that look like paint rollers. Aerial and ground-view cameras are activated, serving like eyes that guide the robot beneath the udder’s four teats. One by one, laser beams pinpoint precisely where each teat is located. Four upright arms with small cups on their ends clamp onto each teat, the last step before the robot begins vacuuming the milk via hoses.

The process usually takes 45 seconds. If an unruly cow moves around too much, the robot simply kicks it out of the station by opening up the exit gate on which the grain bin is attached; if it still refuses to move out, a wire situated above it delivers a small shock to prod it forward.

Fueled by a variable-speed vacuum machine, the robot milks the cow while it’s busy eating cornmeal in the bin. The robot’s digital screen displays the rate at which milk is pumped out, along with how much grain the cow consumes. The robot automatically adjusts its milk and grain expectations for each cow using past data. Cow number 385, to illustrate, was fed 6.7 pounds of grain Tuesday based on its anticipated level of milk production. The screen indicated it had produced 31 pounds of milk when the robot emptied the udder. Sitting in a glass container connected with the tubes, the milk is then pumped upward through pipes in the ceiling; they lead to a large refrigeration tank, where milk is cooled before it’s transported from the farm.

Mr. Mason said it takes an average of seven minutes to milk each cow, and cows are milked an average of 2.7 times a day — anywhere from two to four times each. Cows are booted out by the robot if they try to be milked too often; conversely, cows that need to be milked aren’t allowed to leave gates in the robot area until they do so.

On Tuesday, a computer at the control room indicated the herd was averaging about 75.2 pounds of milk per cow per day. It also listed cows that need extra attention from owners because they’ve delayed visiting the robot for more than 12 hours. Mr. Mason said the cows eventually should produce 80 to 90 pounds as they adjust to the system. He said if a major problem occurs, the robot will automatically call Todd or Gregory on their cellphones at any time of day.

The high-tech parlor also includes more advanced features. It was designed by Lely and built by workers from Bach & Co., Clayton, who started the project in October and finished in February. The ceiling is 14 feet high and lined with high-pressure sodium lights, for example, and walls 234 feet long on the south and north sides are lined with curtains that rise and fall to control air circulation. An automatic manure scraper powered by a pulley system constantly travels along the barn’s alleys — replacing work that used to be done with a tractor. And a robot named Juno, designed by Lely, travels up and down an alley of the barn where the silage is located near the feed stalls. It automatically pushes the silage in a neat row by the stalls, positioning it so that cows can stick their necks out of the stalls to eat it.

Todd, who’s demonstrated the equipment for several farmers, thinks the robots will become increasingly popular. The robots have freed more time for the Masons to work on projects and spend with family, watching their children play sports, riding horses and fishing on the St. Lawrence River, located about a half-mile from the farm’s driveway.

“Every day now feels like Saturday,” Todd said, adding he may choose to retire later thanks to the robots. “I could live a lot longer now, and they could be my Social Security check.”

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