Robotics take over milking chore at local dairy

Jason Chamberlain explains the computer system now used by the family dairy to automate milking. (Malheur Enterprise/Pat Caldwell)

By Pat Caldwell

The Enterprise

WILLOW CREEK – The sturdy Guernsey milk cows loitered in knots near the back of Warren Chamberlain’s dairy barn, waiting their turn.

One at a time, the dairy cows slowly ambled over to an unremarkable alcove guarded by a fence railing. A Guernsey stepped into a narrow chute, then disappeared.

The age-old act of milking a cow was underway but here the process is high tech, a symbol of how actions in Salem and fluctuations in the economy merge to impact the heartland.

Milking one of the 500 milk cows at the Chamberlain dairy no longer means rounding up a squad of Guernseys and herding them to a milk parlor several times a day.

Now, herding isn’t necessary. When the cows are ready to be milked, they stroll a few feet into a chute towards the machine that will milk them.

Instead of hands gripping the teats of milk cows, robots do all the work.

“This is about as automated as a dairy can get now,” Warren Chamberlain said.

The automated milking process begins with a collar worn by each cow. The collar is important for the main mission of the dairy – milking. When a cow steps into one of the corridors – which resemble a typical rail ranch chute, the computer takes over. The collar connects with the computer which, in turn, communicates to the automated milking apparatus.

The cow walks up into a narrow chute and is greeted by a receptacle of grain. As the milk cow munches grain, the milking robot takes over. At the end of a long thick metal arm are rubber suction cups. As the cow stands, the robot arm uses a laser to establish the position of the animal. Then the robot arm locates the teats and brushes them, using a solution of hydrogen peroxide and water to clean the area. The computer guides the rubber suction cups to the teats and begins to milk.

The computer measures the milk for butter, fat and protein content and gauges its temperature. This information helps dairy workers to gauge the health and productivity of the animal.

“It takes six and a half minutes to milk a cow,” Jason Chamberlain said.

If the computer determines the cow is still processing her milk internally, it won’t begin.

Instead, the cow will step forward and go back out into the main holding area or walk into a second chute. Sometimes, Jason Chamberlain said, a cow will be turned away from the first automatic milking chute, then walk a few steps into the second chute and get milked.

The collar each milk cow wears provides constant computerized updates to the Chamberlains. If the cow is sick, the collar will detect that. If the cow is nearing its time to be bred, the collar tells the computer.

Warren Chamberlain, who has worked on his dairy for 45 years, recently installed six automatic milking machines.

The automatic milking process is more efficient, Jason Chamberlain said.

“We went from milking three times a day to milking two times. We don’t use as many employees, but they work more hours,” he said.

The automation changed just about every element of the milking process. Before Warren Chamberlain introduced the robot technology, the cows were herded from a holding area over to the old milk parlor. There they were milked, six at a time.

“Now they never move. They sleep, eat and drink where they live,” Warren Chamberlain said.

The new technology is manifest in other ways as well. For example, cameras are stationed throughout the barn housing the cows. The cameras send 3-D images of the animals to the computer constantly. The cameras furnish the Chamberlain’s with a crucial tool regarding their stock.

“Before we had to worry about how our employees treated those cows. We don’t have to worry about that anymore,” he said.

Not surprisingly, the health of the cows is crucial, Jason Chamberlain said.

“When we get up, we go take care of the animals before we take care of ourselves,” he said.

Necessity drives conversion

The Chamberlains have worked their dairy situated near Willow Creek since 1971. The dairy was founded by Warren’s father, Richard.

The incentive to automate came nearly two years ago, when Warren and Jason Chamberlain attended an Oregon Dairy Farmers Association convention.

There, the Chamberlains heard legislators discussing a proposed minimum wage boost along with other factors – such as mandatory retirement accounts for employees and paid sick leave – that would drive up costs. Both Democratic and GOP lawmakers spoke to the dairymen but the Chamberlains found the Republican message sobering.

The Republicans told the dairymen they couldn’t block the Democratic initiatives. After the lawmakers spoke, Warren and Jason walked outside and chatted about the news. Each man also knew their dairy faced two other challenges: finding employees and upgrading the 1960s era milk parlor.

Three elements prompted the Chamberlains to act.

“They (the lawmakers) never said anything about helping us find employees. So, it suddenly made robots affordable. And we couldn’t find anyone to work anyway. We had looked at robots before and decided it was too expensive.” Warren Chamberlain said. “But when we penciled it out, it penciled out. So, we scraped our parlor and went with robots.”

The potential costs are not modernizing was too steep, Jason Chamberlain said.

“The driving force was labor, the lack of being able to find labor and find willing labor. Then the cost associated with the minimum wage increase and all the employer taxes we have to pay. Just paid sick leave was going to cost us $6,000 a year,” Jason Chamberlain said.

While the decision to go with robots was straightforward, putting the pieces together proved to be demanding.

Warren Chamberlain said he invested several million dollars in automation but early in the process faced a specific problem.

“The biggest challenge was finding a banker,” Warren Chamberlain said.

Jason Chamberlain said the new technology spooked potential financiers.

Eventually, though, the Chamberlains got financing for the upgrade that took two years. The robot system went online in July, Jason Chamberlain said.

The new system allowed the Chamberlain’s to streamline their operation – they operate with five fewer employees. The new technology creates employment opportunities and challenges. Warren Chamberlain said with automation a certain degree of education will be critical.

“Now we need someone who can do computer work,” he said.

Have a news tip? Email: [email protected] or call Pat Caldwell at (541) 473-3377.