New technology helps dairy industry

February 15, 2008 12:19:38 AM PST
California's dairy industry is big. It produces one-fifth of the nation's milk supply. There are almost three times more dairy cows than the population of San Francisco, and a big push is underway to make them happy cows.

You've seen the TV commercials by the California Milk Advisory Board.

"There's the saying here, happy cows come from California, and we'd like to bring that same philosophy of happy cows to all the dairy industry," said reproductive specialist Angie Bowen.

Research indicates happy cows don't happen by accident. They're being bred that way. Companies like Semex are showing off examples of milk cows sired from genetically screen sperm.

"You really want to breed cows that you know are going to be in your herd for five, six, seven lactations so that you're producing more and more milk every lactation and passing along that longevity and production to her daughters so you know you're not replacing as many every year and that you can have them in the herd for longer," said Bowen.

DNA testing eliminates genes that could make cows disease prone. Robotic technology is also fostering happy cows. A $200,000 milking machine uses a camera and two laser beams to attach hoses to the teats.

The cows come to be milked when they feel like it.

"They're in their comfort zone, and if they're comfortable, the release of milk is faster and easier, and everything's good," said Nick Kunkel from Delaval Voluntary Milking System.

A single robotic milking machine can handle 50 to 75 cows a day.

"It definitely is an exciting technology but the size of the dairies these days, it would take too many of them robots to be efficient," said Chico dairyman Travis Mouw.

California dairies are getting larger. A family operation might be 100 cows, but herds of 1,500 are more common today at commercial dairies.

Keeping the cows happy is becoming a big business.

When it comes to diary farming, you could say that genetics is taking care of the input, robotic technology is taking care of the output, and the next frontier is taking care of the throughput -- if you catch my drift.