It rattles and hisses as a metal gripper arm moves up and four rubber cups snap onto a cow's teats. Then the pumping starts audibly. The special thing about it: no human milks the cow, but a robot in a steel box, into which the animal went voluntarily. The four-legged friend is called Melissa, as can be read on a display. She takes it easy and eats concentrated feed.
"It's like a treat as a reward," says farmer Henning Lefert in his cowshed in Ahaus, Westphalia. The farm is an example of the trend towards milking machines in Germany's cowsheds.
According to the German Farmers' Association, the proportion of farms that rely on automatic milking systems and no longer on manual milking has increased continuously in recent years. According to a survey in which a good quarter of German milk producers took part, 17 percent of those surveyed now work with milking robots. "It can be assumed that the proportion of automatic milking systems in dairy farms will continue to rise," says the association's deputy general secretary, Udo Hemmerling.
Demand for robots is increasing
This is a lucrative business for robot suppliers. They include the Düsseldorf company Gea, Lely (Netherlands), Fullwood (Great Britain) and DeLaval (Sweden). The plant manufacturer association VDMA reports that the number of automatic milking systems sold in Germany in 2022 has increased by more than half compared to the previous year. The VDMA does not give an absolute number.
What are the reasons for the trend? "I had the choice between growing or giving up - i.e. getting bigger or giving up," says farmer Lefert when asked why he switched to automatic in 2018. At that time, the 32-year-old ran the farm with 40 cows with his father. "We milked at five in the morning and at five in the evening - every day." But that didn't go on forever, also because his father gradually wanted to take things a little easier when he was older.
So the junior decided to buy two robots and took out a loan. He tripled the number of livestock to 120. That's typical: if dairy farms switch to robots, they increase their number of livestock - they need more sales to make the expensive technology worthwhile. On the other hand, milking robots are not economical for small farms. 100 cows is the minimum size.
Relief at the backbreaking job
Peter Lauwers from the plant manufacturer Gea sees the lack of skilled workers as a driving force for automation. It is becoming more difficult for farmers to find staff. So they would have to do most of the backbreaking work themselves. "Digitization helps companies to reduce physical strain and to keep up better with the competition," says the manager. Gea also sells conventional technology. However, 90 percent of the milking parlors it sells in Germany are automated versions.
The higher productivity and the reduced work pressure can be seen on farmer Lefert's farm. "My father and I used to work here full-time," he says. "Today we have three times as many cows and I mostly do it myself. My father only helps out occasionally." For him, the work has changed - it's more about technology and data analysis and less about practical work on cows.
It's good that he doesn't have to get up as early as he used to. "After the regulars' table or the shooting match, I can even sleep up to six." His father was recently on vacation for the first time in decades - on a four-day bike tour. "The robots make life easier for farmers," says Andreas Beck from DeLaval.
The cows can move freely in the Ahauser Kuhstall in an area of about 30 by 40 meters. That's not a lot of space - in a company that doesn't rely on organic, but usual. Lefert does not let the cows onto a meadow right next to it, even though it belongs to his farm. It takes too long, and eating grass reduces the cows' milk yield. "I can't afford to let the cows graze - after all, I still have to pay off the loan from the bank." Roughly speaking, a robot that is sufficient for milking 60 cows costs 150,000 euros. For a company that relies on a product with strongly fluctuating prices, this is a risk. Other farmers shy away from this step.
Ten percent more milk
One argument in favor of technology is animal welfare. It is more comfortable for cows to voluntarily go to the milking box at some point instead of having to go at fixed times to be milked by a human, says Lauwers. In fact, it is quiet in the cowshed. Rarely does an animal roar. "The cows are relaxed."
A cow goes to a robot box three times a day. As a result, compared to a similar cow in a farm with manual milking, she brings about ten percent more milk, says Gea manager Lauwers. Farmer Lefert confirms the higher performance.
The milking robots are also about data analysis. Diseases are detected early by sensors. Mastitis - inflammation of the teats - can thus be prevented in good time. DeLaval manager Beck reports how the teats and the expressed milk are analyzed with sensors. "The number of cells is automatically counted to sound an alarm at the slightest deviation from the norm." If action is taken early, the veterinarian will have to come less often. Technology has significantly reduced the use of antibiotics. It is similar with the Gea robots.
Cow Melissa is now finished. Milking took seven minutes. The doors of the three meter long milk box open. Melissa goes out to the front. Angie pushes in from behind. It rattles, it hisses, and there is a suction noise. The black and white piebald cow looks around relaxed and eats her concentrated feed.