Hand Milking the Dairy CowsCredit: Photo courtesy of National Archives and Records Administration, Department of Agriculture. Bureau of Agricultural Economics, Division of Economic Information- photo taken by Irving Rusinow- image downloaded from Wikimedia Commons

Moving from hand milking to using a milking machine was controversial when it was first considered late in the 19th century.  Many people from dairy farms as well as the agricultural arena as a whole believed using any type of milking equipment would decrease the quality of milk and even the milk production from the dairy cows.  The secretary of the Dairyman’s Association weighed in with the opinion hand milking was valuable in the development of the cow’s udder.

 Invention of the First Milking Machine

 The first attempts at using some type of milking equipment other than by hand, would give reason for head-shaking in this century.  Wooden tubes or feather quills were inserted into the cow’s teats to keep the sphincter muscle open and allow the milk to freely flow.  By mid-19th century the tubes were made of silver, ivory or bone.  Eventually the catheter was extended by rubber tubing to direct the milk into the pails.

 Many people blamed this method for the spread of diseases and claimed it caused injury to the cows’ udders because it weakened the sphincter muscle allowing milk to dribble at will.  Over the years, inventions for milking equipment fell into one of two categories: 1) mechanical pressure devices that emulated hand milking, and 2) vacuum devices that emulated a nursing calf.  For many years inventors turned out numerous sorts of both of these types of devices, but by the late 19th century, the pulsating machines made the vacuum devices much more popular.

 The first vacuum type milkers consisted of a large gutta percha cup that fit over the entire udder, pumping from all four teats at once, and was connected to a hand pump.  These early devices were quite uncomfortable Early Cow Milking EquipmentCredit: Photo courtesy of New Student’s Reference Work-Dairy Industry- image downloaded from Wikimedia Commonsfor the cows as they created constant pressure on the teats, and also caused damage to the mammary tissue.

 One of the pioneers of milking equipment inventions was American L.O. Colvin.  He patented a device which used a lever to operate the suction.  While this milking machine was popular at the time, it still subjected the dairy cows’ udders to constant vacuum.   About thirty years later a Scottish man, William Murchland, invented a suction machine that hung suspended under the cow.  Over the next three decades suction milkers grew in popularity.  1910 Milking MachineCredit: author unknown- image downloaded from Wikimedia CommonsThe Mehring machine was one of the most popular as it allowed for two cows to be milked at the same time and was controlled by a foot pedal.

 The first pulsator machine was called the Thistle milking machine.   This machine used a steam driven vacuum and produced intermittent flow of milk.  The pulsator machine is what finally evolved into a truly workable milking machine.   In 1898, the USDA finally approved a pulsator milking machine for the dairy farm, but even with the pulsators now on the market, the machines could not fully milk a cow in the same manner as milking by hand.  The machines did not allow for the changing size of the cow’s teats during the milking process, nor were they able to milk to completion.  Some milk was forced back into the udder by the machines.

 Automated Milking Equipment

 The milking equipment for the dairy farm of today is much more advanced.  However, it took almost an entire century to advance to the fully automatic milking systems of today.  It wasn’t until the late 20th century in which the automatic milking systems (AMS) were developed.  The core of these systems is a kind of robot.  Most AMS use computers and software to manage the dairy herd and the milking process.

 Owning and maintaining a dairy farm is time consuming and labor intensive.  Bigger dairies use AMS to reduce the need for manual labor in the milking process.  Some of the more advanced AMS incorporate udder cleaning and attachment and removal of the milking equipment to the dairy cows.  While in the past cows were milked in the morning and in the evening; the new AMS or voluntary milking systems allow the cow to decide the milking schedule.  Automated gates control the traffic, robotic arms detect and attach the milking cups to the teats and spray the udder clean after detachment.  The cows are enticed to enter the unit by feed, and then a sensor identifies the cow.  A New Milking EquipmentCredit: Photo by Henry Clark – Geograph project collection – image downloaded from Wikimedia Commonscomputer tells the system whether or not the cow has been recently milked.  If so, the cow is sent out of the unit; if not, the robotic arms attach the cups and start the milking process.   One AMS typically handles 50-70 cows. 

 As with anything, there are both advantages and disadvantages to using an AMS versus hand-milking cows.  Initial costs are high, but the AMS is less labor intensive.  Farmers have less contact with their animals, but the data collected from the computer can be invaluable.  Each dairy farmer must decide what is most cost effective, least harmful to the animals, and in the best interest of his or her farm.







The copyright of the article “The Evolution of the Cow Milking Machine” is owned by Cheryl Weldon and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.