These Powassan cows are milked on their own time

·5 min read

There's something a little different nowadays at the Kunkel dairy farm in Powassan.

The cows are no longer milked by hand.

Rather, husband and wife Dustin and Natasha Kunkel have made the jump to robotic farming.

“Our cows are now mechanically milked as opposed to conventional methods,” says Dustin Kunkel.

“It's a system that's designed around the cows and it's better for them because the cow decides when it wants to be milked.”

Natasha Kunkel says when the cow is ready to be milked it walks into a gated stall and the robotics take over.

First, a brush cleans the cow's four teats on the udder before the robotic arm attaches a cup to each of the teats and the milking begins.

Natasha Kunkel says the robot has information about each of the cows already input into its system and, because of this, knows where to attach the cups on the teats of each cow.

Additionally, the system is sophisticated enough that each cup will uncouple from each teat when the milking is done.

The entire process from start to finish is over in about seven minutes.

Dustin Kunkel says the robot doesn't save him any time since he's still doing work around the barn.

“But it gives me flexibility because I no longer have to milk them at certain times,” he says.

The robot, known as Lely, was acquired by the Kunkels in early December and Dustin Kunkel says it took very little time to train the cows to walk to the robot on their own.

What gets them there, he says, is a bag of food where the cows munch away while the robot's cups are attached to the teats and milking continues.

Kunkel says the food in this case is like a treat.

“It's pellets made of soy bean and flax seed mostly,” he says. “So it's very high in energy and protein and they like it.”

Kunkel says the cows always have access to their regular forage in the feed bunk. But they've learned that they get a little something extra in the form of a treat at the robot site when they're ready to give milk.

The cows only visit the robot when they're ready to give up their milk.

“The number of visits depends on the cow,” Dustin Kunkel says.

“Some might just go once a day and others go as many as six times in a day. We average about 25 to 30 litres of milk per cow per day.”

Kunkel says the robot keeps a database on each cow and is loaded with reams of information, including how many times each cow has visited the robot that day.

“And if she hasn't visited the robot, it gives me an alarm,” he says.

Kunkel says when the Lely identifies which cow hasn't yet made a visit, he simply takes the cow over and it's problem solved.

Kunkel says the robotic method of milking cows has been around for about 25 years, but it's new to the area.

“In the North Bay region, we're only the second dairy farm to have it next to a farmer in the Verner area,” he says.

“Some farmers in Earlton also use it, but the majority are in southern Ontario. The Lely is also used in other parts of Canada and Europe.”

Once the cow is milked, Natasha Kunkel says the robot tests it for colour, abnormalities and infections, and then sends it to their bulk tank.

“But if there's anything wrong with the milk, the entire amount that was just collected from the cow is discarded so none of it ends up in the bulk tank,” she says.

Kunkel says this is one of the major benefits of the Lely because in the past when a problem was encountered with the milk, although the Kunkels had a general idea of which cow produced the problematic milk, “it was still a bit of a guessing game.”

When there are no issues with the milk, it flows into the bulk tank, which has a capacity of 5,000 litres.

However, the tank never gets to capacity, at least not yet.

Dustin Kunkel says they picked up a tank with such a large capacity because they plan to expand some time in the future.

For now, the approximate 60 dairy cows on the Kunkel farm produce about 1,300 to 1,400 litres of milk a day.

The milk is picked up every second day and trucked to Thornloe in the Timiskaming District where it's turned into butter.

As for what the dairy farmers would do if the Lely breaks down, Dustin Kunkel says there are no worries in that department.

“There's a service support number I can rely on,” says Kunkel.

“The most I've ever heard of any of the robots being down is five hours and that's very manageable.”

Kunkel acknowledges that during a breakdown, the cows ready to give up their milk might feel a little stress, but he points out there's no harm.

He says the support crew is based in Timiskaming and can be on site in very little time and have the Lely running again in short order.

He adds considering under the conventional way of hand-milking cows where the milking could be every 12 hours, a five-hour wait won't be too difficult and the cows ready to give milk once the Lely is back in operation would be the first in line.

Rocco Frangione is a Local Journalism Initiative reporter who works out of the North Bay Nugget. The Local Journalism Initiative is funded by the Government of Canada.

Rocco Frangione, Local Journalism Initiative, The North Bay Nugget