Milking the Cow: A New Perspective

UW-Madison agricultural engineering department chair, Douglas Reinemann, has redefined the milking process.

By Justin Alt

Wisconsin is often referred to as the “Dairy State,” and rightfully so. Since Wisconsin’s agricultural rise in the late 1800s, Wisconsin has been a leading producer in the dairy industry. For many years, the dairy industry has relied on mechanical processes to retrieve milk from cows. The mechanical techniques worked well; however, since 1980, a larger focus has shifted towards robotics and the biological side of the industry.

At the epicenter of the Dairy State lies UW-Madison, traditionally excelling in agricultural engineering. The current department chair, Dr. Douglas Reinemann, has been with UW-Madison since his undergrad years. Reinemann received his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering at UW-Madison before attending Cornell, where he received his Ph.D., also in agricultural engineering. Reinemann, who is well known for his many contributions to the dairy industry, has redefined what it means to truly “milk a cow.”

Reinemann, with his fellow researchers, created a robot that can milk up to sixty cows without the need of a person to control it. The robot uses recognition software that identifies the cow and can roughly determine where the cow’s udders are located. Then, with the help of sensors, the robot can pinpoint the udders’ precise location, attach to them and begin the milking process.

Once milking has begun, the robot examines the milk quality, checking the bacteria count, sematic cell count and the color of the milk. If the milk does not pass these tests (for example, if the milk has blood in it, causing a discoloration), the robot is programmed to discard the milk. The robot does not stop there; in fact, it sends a message to the farmer, telling the farmer to examine the specific cow for illnesses related to the findings. This technology saves famers both time and energy, allowing for a maximization of milk output.

Currently, these robots are more applicable on small farms because of their high price tag. Typically, these farms have at least two robots. The robots operate in a boxed-in area, located at the end of an open stable. The open stable provides a more relaxed, natural lifestyle for the cows, as they are not confined to a small pen. In order to familiarize the cows with the robot, feed is placed in the milking areas to initially entice the cows to enter the box. Over time, the cows are conditioned to associate the box with milking and will return on their own will.

Reinemann believes the industry will expand exponentially in the next ten years, as he sees robots taking over for the current mechanical mechanisms. As technology advances and the sensors improve, the robots will draw even more attention, likely from larger dairy farms. Importantly, as Reinemann states, “[The small farmer] will continue to see benefits as larger farms begin to use the boxes. The technology is size neutral. Whether you have two boxes or twenty boxes, you can only have sixty cows per box.” This is encouraging news to small farmers, who have seen large gains in production since implementing these boxes. Size neutrality also encourages farmers to space the cows out across the land, making for better living conditions.

Reinemann’s machine milking research is just one portion of his contribution to agricultural engineering. He has also researched stray voltage, which focuses on how much voltage a cow can withstand before becoming irritated. Based on his findings, lawmakers in many states have passed laws that restrict the amount of voltage used on cows to induce milking. Reinemann has also compared the advantages and disadvantages of using corn to produce ethanol. His research proved that the process is still efficient, and it is more lucrative to first use the corn to produce ethanol and then to feed the residual corn to cows and other animals. This process does not affect the cows and brings more money to the farmer.

Since accepting his department chair position, Reinemann has had to put most of his stray voltage and ethanol research on hold. He now focuses primarily on his milking machine research and teaching several upper-level courses in agricultural engineering. The ever-advancing technology constantly provides ways for researchers like Reinemann to innovate and better the existing technologies. The groundbreaking milking machine research done on campus and around the state continues to exemplify why Wisconsin is the “Dairy State.”