A northeast Iowa dairy has invested in a mechanical employee to help with the milking chores in hopes of staying competitive in an industry that’s losing producers at an alarming rate. Kevin Kueker owns the dairy farm near Waverly where a robotic milking machine was installed in June.

“Some people milk three time a day but with the automatic robotic system, it gives us a lot more flexibility,” Kueker says. “The cows still eat and go to the bathroom and still have to be cared for but we don’t have to be there right at six o’clock in the morning or six o’clock at night and we can adjust our schedules accordingly.”

 Kueker says training the cows to use the robotic milking stalls took some time. “The cows were pretty nervous going in there,” Kueker says.

“They didn’t really milk that well. We just divided the barn into three groups, basically, and we kept rotating them through that first week. Gradually, after about the third day, the cows started to go in pretty easily. We didn’t really have to push on them. Just a few stubborn ones and away we go.”

Kueker says the herd is enticed to use the system with a sweet feed supplement. Each of the 95 animals is fitted with an ankle bracelet, much like human parolees, but in this case, no laws are being broken — unless you count a cow that tries to steal a snack.

“If it’s too soon to be milked, then it’ll kick it back out and if they’ve had enough time in between milkings, they can come back in, get their treat and get milked,” Kueker says. “It’s just amazing all of the different things (the computer) tracks for each cow.”

A click of the mouse shows the last time each cow was milked, her weight and how much she’s producing. Only about two-dozen Iowa dairy farmers are using these robots. Kueker says the set-up gives the cows more freedom, too, instead of being locked up all day.

“They have their own spot to lay down and they can get up and move around, roam around the whole building, go eat, get a drink of water and get milked,” he says. Kueker expects the robotic efficiency and precise record-keeping will offset the nearly-six-digit cost of installation.