CARLISLE — The cows at Great Brook Dairy Farm live well. They’re untethered, housed in a large, open-air barn (with inflatable walls for winter), roaming about at will. And they decide when it’s time to eat, to sleep, and to be milked. “Everything here is driven off the natural urges of the cow,” explains farmer Mark Duffy. This is possible because their home is a “smart barn,” designed around a robotic milking system, the only one in the state.
The barn, completed in early 2011, has been a boon to this 26-year-old family-owned operation, which sits on 90 acres in the Great Brook Farm State Park that Duffy and his wife, Tamma, lease from the Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation. The roughly $350,000 equipment is a DeLaval Voluntary Milking System manufactured in Sweden. Lactating cows, wearing transponders around their necks, pass through an electronic gate when they’re hungry, and the system — which knows when they were milked last and whether it was a complete milking — directs them to a milking or feed stall. “The cows love it. We love it,” says Duffy. “It’s a whole new way of farming, so it brings new challenges, but new opportunities. It’s like flying on a jet for the first time when you’re used to traveling in a car.”
The system was financed by the Massachusetts Department of Agricultural Resources. About half the 140 cows at Great Brook Dairy are lactating and produce about 5,000 pounds of milk a day, processed at Cabot Creamery cooperative’s plant in Massachusetts, and turned into butter, cream, ice cream base, milk powders, and other products. Visitors to Great Brook will also find a petting zoo and an ice cream stand. (The DCR closed the stand for about a week in late May because of concern about possible contamination from chemicals that may have been released during construction. But according to the DCR spokesperson, S.J. Port, further testing showed there was no indication of contamination and the stand was reopened.) The ice cream is made at Bliss Dairy in Attleboro, which uses Great Brook milk, though not exclusively.
If the robotic system sends a cow to the milking stall, she goes into a large, metal enclosure that holds one animal at a time; it identifies her by her transponder, and keeps a record of udder loads and where her teats are located. This is important, Duffy explains, because “no two look alike, and the udder changes over the course of lactation.” A camera with two lasers guides a robotic arm to the cow’s teats. It washes and dries them, then attaches cups to start milking. Meanwhile, the cow happily munches on a bowl of feed, a tastier blend than the other feed in the barn to maximize the cows’ enjoyment while they’re being milked. “They never have a bad experience,” says Duffy. “They want to get in there.”
That could explain the line that forms behind cow #811 on a recent afternoon. The “ladies,” as the Duffys call them, are waiting patiently when a small scuffle breaks out. One of the residents has grown impatient and tries to cut ahead. But the others will have none of it. “When we first put [the system] in, there would be some cows that would spend hours out there letting everybody get ahead of them,” Duffy says. As the ladies have gotten used to the system, flare-ups are unusual. Some who do not like waiting have adjusted their schedules so they get milked in the middle of the night, when there is less traffic.
As a cow is being milked, a screen on the outside wall of the stall runs a continual display of her output. The system also estimates a yield for each cow, based on previous milkings and other parameters. If a cow does not give as much milk as expected, her number appears on the “Incomplete Cow List.” Incomplete milking can mean a cow was moving around too much in the stall, in which case one of the farmers will stand with her next time to keep her still.
“People think technology is bad for the family farm,” Duffy says. “Technology is good for the family farm. This machine will milk approximately 70 cows, two to four times, in 24 hours,” he says. That frees up the farmers to spend time working with cows who need attention and on other chores.
When they’re not busy producing, the cows dine on a mixture of grass, home-grown corn, and grain, customized to their specific needs, whether they are pregnant, lactating, or “on vacation,” as Duffy describes the time in between. They rest on padded mattresses with sawdust on top, and have access to a bovine brush suspended in the barn; because sometimes that sawdust can get a bit itchy.
“If you were a cow, you’d want to live here,” Duffy says.
Great Brook Dairy Farm,
247 North Road, Carlisle, 978-371-7083. Open for tours weekends through late October, or during the week by appointment. The farm’s ice cream parlor is open daily through October from 11 a.m. until dark.