Thoroughly Modern Milkmaid

With the right equipment, cows can be trained to milk themselves.

Illustration by Garry Marshall
GOT MILK? With the right equipment, cows can be trained to milk themselves. They are lured to the machine with food, but soon learn to go there whenever their udders are full. When a cow enters the milking station, a computer scans an ID tag on her collar (1). A robotic arm swings under her udder (2) and washes it. A laser locates the exact position of her teats, attaches four vacuum cups (3), and starts milking. Milk from each teat is measured by a computer that releases the cups when milk flow stops. The robotic arm disinfects the udder, swings back (4), and the cow exits (5).Illustration by Garry Marshall

The dairy farms of Europe are as picturesque as ever, but for the past 10 years they've had something American farms lack: robotic milking technology. Labor costs are higher across the pond, so as many as half the European dairies have the machines, which can milk cows 24 hours a day with no human interaction (see left). Lately, American farmers have begun to wonder if the machines, built by Bou-matic of Madison, Wisconsin, and Lely of Holland, are worth a try. But at $125,000 each, the gizmos are "a high-risk investment," says University of Wisconsin biological systems engineer Doug Reinemann. So the U.S. dairy industry is proceeding cautiously. The Mason Dixon Farm in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania, is one of seven to try the equipment. Farmer Doyle Waybright says he's improved production by some 10 percent. How do the cows like it? "Don't know," says Waybright. "They don't talk to me."