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Cows are smarter than computer geeks


In my lifetime I have two real occupations — journalist and milking cows. Milking cows for a living was always my second choice.

The reasons behind my decision not to become a dairyman were many: Starting off in a barn or milking parlor at 5 a.m. each day, seven days a week; finishing the work day about 7 p.m. by shoveling cow manure from the barn; lacking the capital investment required; and no vacations and days off.

My years working with cows — mature, female bovines to city folks — were rewarding. Both my paternal grandmother and older brother told me I would learn more about people by watching animals than by watching people. They were right most of the time.

Cows are smarter than most individuals will ever realize. A 1,500 pound Holstein cow can keep a human penned against a fence or building and cause considerable pain by placing a hoof on your foot if she is upset.

Even less fun is a cow’s tail filled with cockleburs slapping your head when you are not paying attention.

Like humans, they have a personality all their own and don’t like change. We kept a radio on in the barn and when the station changed its format from gospel to rock ‘n roll, our production fell about 25 percent for several weeks until they became accustomed to the change.

With a registered Holstein producing more than 20,000 pounds of milk annually, a loss of 25 percent of your volume can prove costly. We milked the cows with the black and white patterns for volume, selling to a company that manufactured condensed milk.

If we had been selling to a dairy for human consumption, the breed of choice would have been the smaller Jerseys, which produce a lower volume but with a higher butterfat content.

Cows establish their own pecking order. They decide which ones in the herd will enter the barn first and last for each milking. That’s one of the reasons why a recent story in a magazine for dairymen caught my attention.

It seems a Dutch firm claims it is manufacturing a dairy robot so sophisticated that it has practically taken the milker out of milking cows. The robots milk the cows, control their feed and adjust their schedules, the manufacturer contends.

The robots have the potential to save family dairy farms, according to early fans.

Many dairy kids are familiar with technology, but have been leaving the farm after watching their parents slave away in milking parlors twice a day, seven days a week, with no vacations or even a break for the children’s athletic games. With robots, farmers have more time for their families.

The dairy droids can reduce labor costs and increase productivity, but don’t come cheap. Each can cost between $150,000 and $200,000, but reduce the need for hired help.

After learning to accept the robot, cows are milked by machine. The robot measures their production and knows if a cow needs to be milked more or less often. The data includes cow body temperature, the health of the cow’s udder and teat health and milk quality. The precision farming can help farmers detect health problems in their herds early.

Milking machines have been around, but the robots must be programmed to let the cows decide when they want to be milked. Unless the cows make the decisions, it won’t work.

I have the scars to prove that it is wise to let the cows believe in freedom of choice.

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Larry Fugate is a veteran journalist and former editor of The Pine Bluff Commercial. He can be reached by e-mail at fugatel@sbcglobal.net or at (870) 329-7010.