Having cows right on campus is one of the things that makes UConn special. It’s the high quality milk produced by those cows that is the main ingredient in the ever-popular UConn Dairy Bar ice cream. In fact, UConn’s herd is ranked in the top 20 of more than 37,000 dairy herds nationwide.
In keeping with these high standards, UConn is now one of the first universities in the United States to adopt the most technologically advanced way of managing and studying a dairy herd: two new robots have been introduced to the herd that enable the cows to choose when to be milked.
The new voluntary milking system will change the day-to-day lives of the herd. Previously, each cow was milked three times a day, at the same time every day. When the cows were ready to be milked, they got noisy, says Steve Zinn, department head and professor of animal science in the College of Agriculture, Health, and Natural Resources.
There’s a different atmosphere in facilities with voluntary milking systems. Since the cows are milked on demand around the clock, they are generally quiet and calm, and spend a lot of the time lying down relaxing.
When ready for milking, the cow walks to the robot, which starts each visit by washing the cow’s udders before attaching four separate milking units – one to each of the four teats, or ‘quarters.’ If one quarter finishes milking before the others, that quarter’s machine will stop and be removed, which is likely more comfortable for the cow, while the other quarters finish being milked.
After six to eight minutes, and after around 30-50 pounds of milk has been collected, the milking units detach and the cow walks away from the robot. With the new system, each cow is expected to visit the robots voluntarily one to four times a day.
The voluntary milking system also provides new research opportunities for UConn. Each cow will be wearing a smart device that will continuously collect data on various facets of the cows’ behavior, such as their movement, how often they are milked, and how much they produce, among many other things.
Besides potentially boosting milk production, the new system is expected to facilitate the collection of data and also reduce water usage. Since the robots are taking care of the milking, Zinn says, this leaves caretakers more time for managing the whole cow, and researchers more time for new and innovative research.