WILLOWCREEK — Robots are now used instead of humans in a variety of jobs, including manufacturing, remote inspections and bomb removal, and they are now being used in Malheur County to milk cows.
These are not robotic figures sitting down and milking cows. Rather, these are machines now performing all the work that humans used to do. That work includes letting cows into the milking stall, cleaning, attaching the milkers to teets, weighing the milk produced and sending it off to be cooled and stored in a tank until it is picked up.
There are six robots in operation at Dairylain Farms, owned and operated by Warren and Lori Chamberlain, north of Vale and west of Willowcreek.
Putting the robots to task
The automated system began in July, an expansion of the dairy operation at the farms which took about two years of planning, Lori Chamberlain said.
It all began about two years ago when their son Jason Chamberlain, a dairy nutritionist, said he wanted to come back to the farm.
In order for their son to join the operation, the Chamberlains said they would have to starting milking more cows. The problem was that their existing milking parlor was already at capacity, with about 300 cows.
So the Chamberlains set about planning for conventional milking barns, which include the need for people to clean the udders, attach and unattach the milking machines and other tasks.
The process took about two years, Lori Chamberlain, said.
But finding laborers to perform the needed tasks proved difficult. That, coupled with the increase of Oregon’s minimum wage, prompted the Chamberlains to look into robots.
“We couldn’t find any employees,” Warren Chamberlain said.
People who called to ask about jobs were just asked to just show up, he said, adding that they rarely did.
“We’re constantly looking for people,” Chamberlain said. “People don’t want to work eight hours.”
Their existing employees, who have been with the dairy farm for about nine years, knowing about the expansion plans they approached the Chamber-lains with concerns about where additional workers would be found.
The Chamberlains ended up visiting dairies which were using robots, as well as attended dairy conventions where they talked with industry people about making the change.
What the robotic dairy entails
There are two barns, one with four robots and one with two robots, milking a total of about 350 cows. Approximately 50 more cows are milked with a conventional system, managed by people.
Cows that are milked the conventional way, where people handle milking equipment, are not robot compatible, Lori Chamberlain said.
And, they want to keep their loyal employees, the couple said.
“Our cows are all Jerseys,” Chamberlain said.
When one cow has been milked, a gate opens, letting it out of the stall while another gate opens to let the next one in.
The robot extends its arm under the cow and prepares its udder for milking by cleaning the udder. An overhead camera tracks the position of the cow and the computerized arm follows the cows movement to properly attach the mechanical milkers.
Once the cow is milked, the milkers come off, and iodine is put on the udder before the cow is released — all this is done without human intervention, unless their is a malfunction with the machine.
The computer system alerts them to any problems.
The cows are trained to use the system, but getting a ration of feed pellets keep them coming back to be milked, even before it is their time.
The computers are not fooled, however, and feed pellets are not put out for cows not ready for milking. Instead they are let out without being milked.
But, there are always a group of cows waiting around to be milked, even in the middle of the night, Lori Chamberlain said, since the system is on 24/7.
“Some days they are in high demand,” she said, of the milking machines. “They fight over them.”
The milk is weighed in a container mounted on the arm and a computer keeps track how much milk individual cows give. It also tracks other important information, some of which are indicators of a cow’s health.
If anything undesirable is detected in the milk, such as blood, it is
immediately dumped at the barn.
A collar around each cow’s neck holds a black electronic box that identifies each cow, and provides other information about the cow’s readiness to be milked. It
even records how the cow chews.
If special attention, for such things a health issues, is required, the automated system can be used to isolate an individual cow if needed so the Chamberlains do not have to go chasing after it.
Robots are in the family.
Besides Jason, who is the nutritionist, taking care of the feed ration for the cows, another one of their sons, Garrett Chamberlain, is employed as a robot technician at Canyon Robotics. The company a distributor for Lely, the company which produced the system used at Dairylain Farms. He stops by the farm periodically to check and service the milking system.
Another son, Jeremy, has his own farm nearby and helps out at the dairy when needed.
Their other son, Derek, is also close by, operating an auto parts store.
The farm is pretty much self-contained.
“We also farm 500 acres,” Warren Chamberlain said.
“Everything we grow is fed to our cows.”