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John Hollenhorst, KSL TV

Cows and robots: A match made in the dairy barn

By John Hollenhorst  |  Posted Aug 1st, 2016 @ 10:00am


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TRENTON, Cache County — If you're worried that machines will eventually take over the Earth, there's some bad news in northern Utah: Robots have taken over a dairy farm in Cache County.

But the good news is the cows don't seem to mind. They've welcomed their new robot overlords.

"We're looking for cow comfort," said Tom Griffin of Circle T Dairy. "What we're looking for is for the cows to be happy."

After a year of getting used to the robots, he thinks the morale of the cows has improved.

One of the robots named Juno — which looks like a double-wide R2-D2 — has taken over a time-consuming task that used to be done by members of Griffin's extended family. Every two hours, Juno travels through the barn sweeping feed toward the mouths of hungry cows.

"Its purpose is to constantly keep feed in front of the cows," Griffin said. "It eliminates a job for an employee to have to go and push up feed."

The family that owns Circle T Dairy installed the robot systems a year ago, replacing some of their traditional dairy equipment. "We went from the Flintstones to the Jetsons," Griffin said, referring to old TV shows about families in the distant past and in the far future.

As for the cows, they seem to get along just fine with Juno.

"I think it's a less stressful thing than having people there all the time, for sure," Griffin said. "It does its job and does it very well."

If a cow develops an itchy back — something that evidently happens a lot — there's another robot to help with that. The bovine back scratcher is a large roller brush that starts spinning on demand, whenever a cow pushes under it.

"All day long they love (having) their backs scratched," said dairy employee Trevor Egan.

The bovine back scratcher is a large roller brush that starts spinning on demand, whenever a cow pushes under it. (Photo: John Hollenhorst, Deseret News)

He said the robot roller helps the cows relax.

"I mean, you think about getting your back scratched. You're absolutely relaxed when you get your back scratched," Egan said.

There's yet another robot to assist the cows in their most important business function: giving milk.

"Each cow comes in when they're ready," Griffin said.

Whenever a cow feels the urge, she enters a narrow stall and sidles up to a robot named The Astronaut. Its functions make it look like a cross between an automatic car wash and a giant vacuum. A set of small rollers cleans the underside of the cow and then suction tubes latch on to the cow to collect the milk.

"They're completely relaxed," Griffin said. "The cows go in to be milked all by themselves."

He said the cows seem to prefer to have a robot rather than a human tinkering under their bellies.

A robot named Juno travels through the barn sweeping feed toward the mouths of hungry cows. (Photo: John Hollenhorst, Deseret News)

"It's a more comfortable atmosphere," he said. "They just voluntarily come in. They'll actually, at certain times of the day, they'll fight to get in there."

Each cow has an electric tag attached to its neck, which is regularly detected and read by computers. If Bossie comes in too often, the robot spurns her advances.

"Once it reads that tag," Griffin said, "if she's in too frequently, the gate will just open. The front gate opens up to kick her out." The cow gets the message, Griffin said, to "come back in a couple hours."

Over the last year the cows have been happier and healthier, according to Circle T, and the robots are making state inspectors happier, too.

"The machines help monitor the flow of the milk coming out of the animals and into the food supply," said Larry Lewis of the Utah Department of Agriculture and Food. "And so our inspectors will then monitor the system to make sure the diversion of impure milk is done properly."

Contented cows, it seems, make more milk. The average cow in Circle T's barn is producing 16 extra pounds of milk per day, an improvement that's very good for the dairy's bottom line.

The cost of converting to robots can be as high as $1 million for a small- to medium-size dairy, according to Lewis. But Circle T Dairy cut down that cost by having some of its own employees do much of the work upgrading the facilities.

So far, state officials say only three dairies in Utah have made the leap from the Flintstones to the Jetsons.

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