Cows at Morningstar Farm

Robot settles in as newest farmhand near Parksville

Computer-assisted Herd Navigator system replaces half-century-old dairy parlour

Clarke Gourlay was in the middle of a business lunch in Nanaimo recently when his son called from the family’s dairy farm in Parksville. Apparently one of their cows had gotten into the new automated milking station, but the station would be off-line for cleaning for another 15 minutes.

“He asked, ‘What should I do? Should I open the gate?'” Gourlay recalls. “I told him, ‘No problem; I’ll take care of it.'”

Gourlay then closed out the call, switched to an app on his smartphone and opened the gate to release the cow.

Thus, Morningstar Farm enters the modern age of dairy farming.

The farm is home to Little Qualicum Cheeseworks, 75 head of cattle, 25 employees, and, since Dec. 1, one robot that handles all the milking duties.

Cows have been milked on the 88-acre site since Jim Lowry founded the original farm in 1890, at the end of the road which now bears his name. A new dairy parlour was installed by the Moilliet family in the 1960s. Gourlay and his wife, Nancy, who bought the farm in 2004, were still using that parlour a half-century later before they upgraded the system last month.

“The Moilliet’s milking parlour was cutting edge, in its day,” Gourlay said. “My dairy supplier tells us it was the oldest operating dairy parlour on the Island at the time we switched over. So now we’ve gone from the oldest system on the Island to the newest, in one day.”

The DelPro Farm Manager “milking robot,” built by the Swedish company DeLaval, is the centrepiece of a larger, fully automated Herd Navigator system installed at Morningstar. It includes a bright, airy barn with self-feeding stations for the cattle, an automated manure management system that constantly cleans behind the cows, and even a self-serve cleaning brush for the animals’ use.

“It’s all about building a system around what cows like,” said Gourlay. “There’s a big advance in technology and animal science to make the cows more comfortable. Because a comfortable cow gives more milk.”

Where cows previously had been marched en masse from their old, dim barn into the dairy parlour for milking twice per day — “whether they wanted to or needed to,” Gourlay said — they now get milked whenever they want.

And the robotic station is open to them 24 hours a day, except for brief closures for cleaning each morning and afternoon.

Each cow wears a transponder around its neck for identification. When it enters the automated rear gate of the milking station, a computer display of its history is displayed on the machine or, with the tap of a touch screen, on Gourlay’s smartphone.

The information includes dates and times of previous milkings, volume of milk, and amount of feed grain it has received. If the cow is due for another milking, the front exit gate is closed, feed is dropped into a bin and the robot goes to work below, using an infrared sensor to locate, clean and place hoses on its four teats.

“Feeding is completely voluntary. Some of them will go in five, six times a day,” Gourlay said. “But if they’ve just gotten milked an hour ago and they try to go back to get some feed, the robot kicks them out.”

In all, the computer measures 150 different pieces of information every time an animal goes through the station, Gourlay said. An analysis of the milk can determine if the cow has an udder infection and, by simply monitoring the cow’s movement, even suggest when it may be in heat and ready for breeding.

During milking, the robot projects how much milk is anticipated from each of the four compartments in the cow’s udder and measures flow rates and litres collected for each of them. When the projected volume is reached or one teat stops issuing milk, the hose detaches and retracts.

When all the hoses have detached, their feed is removed and the exit gate opened. If one cow proves reluctant to leave, there’s a time-honoured automated method to hasten her along, as well. The next cow waiting to enter the station simply provides a head-butt on one hip and keeps shoving until the space is vacated.

“Now, they don’t do anything as a herd,” said Gourlay. “They do it as individual cows. There’s a lot less human interference in their lives.”

There was a transition before the cows became comfortable with the new system, but Gourlay said it was remarkably brief.

“We had to get them used to it,” he said. “The first day there was a little bit of dancing going on. But the smart ones, within a day or two of going in and getting feed, marched right in and let the machine hook up.”

The new system is integrated seamlessly into the farm’s existing milk storage and cooling tank, with milk pumped from the robot via an overhead, stainless-steel pipe. From there, the milk continues on to the cheese-making vat.

Qualicum Cheeseworks produces 150-plus kilograms of cheese each day. There are 13 varieties, mostly of the European, “soft” cheese but also several North American favourites, including Monterey Jack. The cheese is sold at groceries, delis and restaurants on Vancouver Island and the Lower Mainland.

Five years ago, Morningstar Farm expanded to include the Mooberry Winery, in a partnership between the Gourlays and vintner Phil Charlebois and his wife Laura.

Looking ahead, Clarke Gourlay said his focus will be on drawing more visitors to the farm for samples — and perhaps purchases — of its cheese, fruit wines and items in the farm store.

The farm also hosts a series of public events like Morningstar’s annual Calving festival in the spring, Jazz Weekend in the summer, and Christmas on the Farm. During any open hours, guests may pick up a laminated map from a basket outside the store and take a self-guided tour of the farm and its facilities, which include a picnic area and trail system.

The new milking robot is not yet part of the tour, but will be unveiled in a grand opening March 12 during the Calving Festival. The old dairy parlour now looks like a museum piece, and that’s exactly what Gourlay plans within the next several years.

“It will be our moo-seum,” he said. “Other possibilities we’re looking into are a bistro, a market garden and chocolate. I really like the idea of chocolate, because it goes so well with wine and cheese. And we could make milk chocolate using our own milk.”

One thing the farm will not undertake in the near future is any expansion. The Herd Navigator system was a substantial investment, Gourlay said, and the family will want to recoup that before making any further big-ticket changes.

“We consider ourselves stewards of these 88 acres,” he said. “It has a long heritage, most of which came before we got here.

“We’re at a natural level for our carrying capacity. We’re not at maximum capacity, but we’re comfortable.”

For more on Morningstar Farm, Little Qualicum Cheeseworks and MooBerry Winery at www.morningstarfarm.ca.

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