The Lely Corporation machines also keep records, and recognize each cow via a collar sensor. The system knows how much feed to give the cow while milking, based on historical data. As the machine milks, the cow may eat, drink and rest in an area with less cattle traffic.
Caretaker Kody Hash led a tour of the facility. He said the machines are 10 to 15 percent more productive than the older ones because the cows come to them more often.
The old non-automated milking machines still milk some of the herd. Hongwei Xin, dean of UT AgResearch said using the two machines side by side allows the facility to “really compare apples with apples, not apples with oranges.” It can study the animals’ milk production, welfare, labor savings and return on investment.
“Today marks a new era for UT Ag research,” he told the crowd.
Several speakers focused on robotic milkers’ economic benefits. Tennessee Agriculture Commissioner Charlie Hatcher said the technology would help with setbacks like the loss of family farms and an aging farmer population.
“What we are doing here is trying to meet that challenge,” he said.
Donna Edwards lives near the Walland farm, and said she was somewhat dubious about the “stress-free” claims from UT officials.
She expressed hope, however, that the institute would soon do more to mitigate the climate effects of cattle herds and continue work to better tend to the animals.
“It’s well known that animal agriculture has an enormous impact on the environment. By belching and producing manure, a single dairy cow generates about 400 pounds of methane per year, which is equivalent to 5 tons of carbon dioxide,” Edwards said.
“One would hope that UTIA (continues) investigating/implementing ways to mitigate these impacts, such as using feed additives that reduce methane production in ruminants.”
The Little River Animal and Environmental Unit is a 529-acre tract providing land, equipment, livestock and support for UT Institute of Agriculture’s research and teaching efforts. The facility focuses on Holstein cow milking and production and the interaction between animal agriculture and the environment. It includes a building for feed mixing, six ground bunker silos, two hay storage sheds, 200 acres of production cropland and 100 acres of pasture.