PARTNERS

By Vicky Boyd 

Ray Quaresma, a third-generation dairy producer, stands below ground level of the rotary milking parlor.

Photo by Vicky Boyd

 

If you ask Manteca dairyman Ray Quaresma about the issues facing the industry, he doesn’t hesitate: “labor, labor, labor.”

Although the cost of labor continues to increase, he said that isn’t his main concern. Trying to navigate the maze of ever-increasing labor regulations and finding good, reliable employees who will show up on time ready to work remain top of mind.

To that end, Quaresma installed a robotic arm about a year ago that takes care of pre-milking washing and sanitizing cows’ udders.

“It takes the position of four people.” Quaresma said. “You don’t have the training time. You don’t have the relief time. You don’t have the vacation time.”

Jack Hamm, who with wife Pati operates Lima Ranch near Lodi, said finding workers also has been a challenge, although the situation has eased somewhat during the past couple of years. With so many dairies going out of business in the county, he said the number of milkers looking for work who want to remain in the area has increased.

“It’s not a positive thing,” Hamm said. “We’ve lost so many dairies in the county, and those milkers want to stay local.”

He also has had to increase the wages he pays. Although Hamm has looked at robotics, he said they don’t pencil out for him.

Another challenge with finding workers – and not just for dairies but throughout agriculture – are skyrocketing housing costs that many cannot afford, Hamm said. 

“This rent is killing ag workers. Rent in California is out of control,” he said. “People are trying to find work close to where they can find reasonable housing.”

Robot sanitizes udders before milking

Before making the significant investment in robotics, Quaresma researched it for about six months. Dairies in Washington and Wisconsin were among the operations that have successfully installed the pre-milking system.

As he has with other major capital investments, he opted for the service package that accompanied the robot. Maintenance, Quaresma said, again relates to labor.

Known as the RotaryMate EXPS, the robot is from Green Source Automation of Ceres, California. The unit has worked as designed since Quaresma had it installed and rarely breaks down. When it does, he said Green Source has promptly fixed the issue.

Having reliable help, whether robotic or human, is paramount to Quaresma as he has 2,500 Holsteins and 500 Jersey cows. Depending on the milk string – groupings based on production – the cows are milked two or three times per day. Broken down, the operation milks between 300 and 330 cows per hour.

Altogether, Quaresma & Quaresma Dairy milks 22 hours per day, 365 days per year. The two hours of down time each day allow for milking parlor sanitation and maintenance.

In addition, the operation has 3,000 young cows raised to replace older cows, and he grows much of his own feed.

Robotics aid efficiency

His rotary milking parlor, which can handle 52 cows at a time, is designed with efficiency in mind. The system resembles a slow-moving merry-go-round. As one animal enters to be milked, another that has been milked during the lap exits.

The rotary design also makes the most efficient use of employees who can stand in one location to perform tasks, such as attaching the milking equipment to the udders, as the cows slowly move past.

Quaresma said the cows, being social animals, also like the circular design because they can look across at other cows and are relaxed during milking.

With parallel or herringbone designs, on the other hand, workers have to walk up and down the alley between two rows of cows to complete tasks.

The rotary design also lends itself to the robotic arm, which is mounted in a fixed location just after the cow enters the parlor.

Cows are a creature of habit, and Quaresma said they had to be slowly introduced to the robotic arm before they would relax around it. Small rubber bumpers on the rotary floor gently position the cows legs in a wide enough stance for easy access by the robotic arm.

As the arm moves in between the cows’ legs, the patented Teat-Finder Camera precisely positions the unit around the right two teats. It then sprays a hydrogen peroxide solution to help sanitize the teats as brushes gently remove dirt and debris – all in less than 5 seconds. Then it quickly moves to treat the left two teats before withdrawing. The activity also stimulates the udder and prompts milk let-down, making for easier milking. 

The robotic pre-milking unit improves the cleanliness of the rear teats by 27 percent, according to Green Source figures. But producers see even an even larger improvement of 49 percent with the front teats since workers have more difficulty reaching and washing them.

Since Quaresma began using the robotic system, he said his somatic cell count has dropped significantly, which equates to improved udder health.

A few companies have commercialized fully robotic milking systems, but he said the technology isn’t advanced enough to satisfactorily handle the number of cows he has. 

But Quaresma said he continues to monitor the technological advances in milking and won’t rule out complete automation in the future.