Alexander van der Lely and Karel van den Berg

Milking robots for healthier cows

Technical field
Agricultural and food processeing
Lely Group
An automated system designed by Dutch duo Alexander van der Lely and Karel van den Berg allows cows to decide when it’s time to be milked. The invention keeps animals happy and healthy; increases milk production; and equips farmers with diagnostic tools to operate more efficiently.

Finalists for the European Inventor Award 2019

One reason why traditional milking is stressful – for both farmer and cow - is that it is the farmer who decides when the cows are to be milked. Herding the animals and manually fixing milking cups can be slow, back-breaking work. For Alexander van der Lely and Karel van den Berg, developing an automated device that can milk cows 24 hours a day provided a modern solution to this problem, resulting in benefits to both livestock and farmers.

The system they developed and patented, the Lely Astronaut, allows cows to wander in for milking untethered, whenever they like. Growing up on a farm, van den Berg knew that for robotic milking to be successful, it would need to be accepted by the cows as being part of the barn. The milker resembles a large box with metal bars on one side and a trough with food for the cow. Once inside, a robotic arm underneath the cow controls the milking process and laser technology is used to attach the milking cups. A sensor above the cow tracks its movements, enabling the robotic arm to move when the animal does. This ability to move around is key to the design and is reflected in the name “the Astronaut” – connected to a space ship via a cord, the astronaut has freedom to move in space and the inventors envisaged the same freedom for the cows while being milked.

Using the Astronaut allows milking to become a natural part of the cows’ day. The benefit to the farmer is that milk production is increased as the system enables more cows to be milked. It’s estimated that a farm with 120 cows could achieve an extra 1 litre per cow per day production capacity when milking is done twice a day using the Astronaut versus conventional methods. The system also helps farmers monitor and manage their herds more efficiently by collecting data from the cows, such as milk production and feeding habits, by scanning the tags on the collars of each animal. This data is fed into and analysed by a software programme and provides farmers with useful information to improve operations on the farm and ensure that the herd remains healthy.

The Lely Group, based in Maassluis, the Netherlands, was founded by van der Lely’s father and uncle in 1948 and has a long history of pioneering new technology in the agricultural sector. An electrical engineer by training, van den Berg started at the firm in 1985, and led the development of the robotic milking system. After studying production and management engineering at the Technical University in Zürich, Switzerland, van der Lely joined van den Berg on this flagship project in 1995 and became CEO in 2004. Both engineers were involved in every step of the process of developing the technology used in their system. The first two patent applications were filed by the company in 1986 and the invention brought to market in 1994. Today, around 30 000 Astronauts are used on farms around the world.

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