Modern dairying would be impossible without milking machines. But it took a century after the first such machines were invented before they were widely adopted in Australia. For millennia, humans had milked cows and other animals by hand. In the 19th century, as mechanisation began to change agricultural practices, people started to apply their minds to the milking operation.
The first milking machines were patented in 1838, says the Australian Bureau of Statistics. But, they add, it wasn’t until the late 1930s that milking by machine became the norm in Australia. It wasn’t through want of trying. Both overseas and in this country, numerous machines were tried and patents applied for.
In the 1850s, reports began to appear in Australian newspapers about a milking machine invented in America. The Launceston Examiner reproduced a piece from The Maine Farmer, stating that:
An ingenious Yankee down east, has invented a machine for milking cows. The editor of the Maine Farmer has seen it and given it a fair trial. He says it empties the udder very freely and easily, and at the rate of a quart per minute.
It’s likely that this referred to a machine that worked by inserting thin metal tubes into each of the cow’s teats, allowing the milk to run freely. Further reports became more frequent in the 1860s. By 1871 a version of these milking machines, made by The Milking Machine Company of Sheffield, England, had been demonstrated in Tasmania. However, in the following years, this catheter method of milking was found to be deleterious in the longer term, causing inflammation, loss of milk via leaking and premature dryness.
The editor of the Leader, in Melbourne in 1871, asked by a correspondent for an opinion on milking machines, responded:
We have no faith in milking machines, Singleton’s included. The best milking machine we know of is a pair of soft flexible hands, quietly, quickly and gently worked by some good-tempered human being.
Many new patents were subsequently applied for using vacuum suction and, in 1895, the pulsator milking machine was invented. In 1897, Robert Kennedy and William Lawrence, an engineer from Glasgow, produced the Lawrence Kennedy milking machine which, in 1903, was improved by a Victorian dairy farmer, Mr A Gillies. The resulting LKG machine was widely used in Australia, although most dairy farmers continued to milk by hand until the 1930s.
The design of milking machines and dairies continued to progress and in the 1950s the “herringbone” shed was introduced – a layout with the cows on dual elevated platforms that allowed the operator better access for applying the machines. The first circular rotary dairy, the “Rotolactor”, was installed at Camden, NSW, in 1952.
Today, experiments are being made with fully automatic, robotic milking systems that require little human intervention in the milking process. The “pair of soft flexible hands” has been relegated to history.