Modern Milking: Bringing Advanced Tech to the Barn

By Lydian Bernhardt / 10/10/2023 College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences

Justin Currie, an animal sciences major and a student worker in the University Farm's Dairy Unit, pets one of the Jersey cows during the Automated Milking System event.

As a crowd of legislators, dairy industry leaders, faculty, staff and Cooperative Extension personnel watched, a small, brown Jersey cow stepped up to be milked in the N.C. A&T University Dairy on Wednesday morning.

In the comfort of her free stall barn, she was fanned, brushed, gently cleaned and fed a snack as the only university-based Automated Milking System in North Carolina, a De Laval 300, attached four teat cups and began to milk. As she munched, the machine’s digital display relayed information about her flow rate, conductivity, milk yield by teat, and other factors. If she had mastitis, or was off her feed, the system would relay that information, too.

The dairy demonstrated its new, state-of-the-art Automated Milking System at an open house on Sept. 20, ushering the Aggie herd into the digital age. The AMS is the most advanced university-based milking system in the state, one of just six in the nation housed at a university. This fully voluntary system allows each cow to be milked as many times a day, and at any time of day, according to her individual needs and capacity, reducing her stress and discomfort.

“Precision agriculture, such as this milking system, is revolutionizing farming, and our college is in the forefront of that movement in the state,” said Mohamed Ahmedna, dean of the College of Agriculture and Environmental Sciences. “Our college has been working very intentionally on developing our capacity to provide training and research on precision techniques to improve farmers’ lives and boost the state’s $103 billion agriculture industry.”

The system, the latest piece of digital technology to come to N.C. A&T, brings the University Dairy – the only dairy in the country at a Historically Black College and University – online with an artificial intelligence-based system that benefits animals, dairy producers, researchers and students alike.

Visitors also got a tour of the young cows; mature animal nutrition and pasture management; and a question-and-answer session with milk and ice cream.

The system provides much more than optimal cow comfort, Mayo said. The data stream allows dairy workers to manage the herd’s nutrition and health more efficiently than they could otherwise, and the automation allows them to solve one of the industry’s most vexing problems: labor shortages.

“It’s sort of like a spa for our cows,” Lauren Mayo, Ph.D., research assistant professor in the Department of Animal Sciences, told the crowd. “They can come in, get taken care of any time they like, and move on.

“This system also provides a huge advantage for our students, so that we can give them advanced, experiential learning with precision technologies so that they can secure careers in the dairy industry, the fastest growing, in terms of careers, within the livestock industry. It will allow students to investigate individual animal health, nutrition, and reproduction using Big Data gained from the system,” Mayo said.

The introduction of the Automated Milking System Is the next step in technological advances at the 492-acre University Farm and in the college, Ahmedna said. This year, the CAES research portfolio nearly topped $40 million, with such major new initiatives as the $18.1 million NextGen grant from the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, designed to grow students’ awareness and participation in agriculture; and the $13 million Urban and Community Food Complex, a part-business incubator, part research facility, set to begin construction this fall.

“Tech is a way to bring youth, who are more tech-savvy, into agriculture and choose it for a major,” Ahmedna said. “As the largest HBCU college of agriculture in the nation, we have a responsibility to be that driver.”

As attendees asked questions, the cow turned to inspect the group, curiously watching those watching her.

“I’m a technical person,” said N.C. Agriculture Commissioner Steve Troxler. “I want to really know how every part of the machinery works, because this is going to be huge for the dairy industry in North Carolina.”

Gregory Goins, Ph.D., the college’s associate dean for research, noted the new chapter in the University Farm’s story that is unfolding.

“We’re using this piece of technology to conduct research and train our students in ways that will provide a major return on investment for the citizens of North Carolina,” he said. “I’m glad that this represents our first push to make A&T the ‘farm of the future.’ ”

Cooperative Extension Administration M. Ray McKinnie, Ph.D. pointed to two A&T dairy pioneers, William L. Kennedy, Ph.D., and Robert “Bob” L. Wynn, M.S., whose work in building the dairy program has paid off for students, faculty and N.C. citizens ever since.

“These pioneers worked tirelessly to assist the college in building a premiere dairy science program and operation,” McKinnie said. “We stand in their shadow today as A&T marks another milestone in dairy science.”

Media Contact Information: Jackie Torok