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How Milking Machines Changed Dairy Farming in the 1900s

Updated: Jun 21, 2022

For dairy farmers in the late 1800s and early 1900s, the milking process was primarily done by hand. A farmer (and likely his family) would go to the barn and milk the cows, by hand, into a bucket and transport the milk to be bottled or used for butter, cheese, or sold to neighbors. Manual milking practices took a lot of time out of a farmer’s day, especially on dairy farms where cattle are more prominent than other agricultural selections. Even though technology has advanced to a stage of robotic milking – the early technological breakthroughs for milking laid the foundation for these exotic advances.

Foot-Powered Mehring Company Milking Machine

One of the earliest milking machines brought to market is thought to be the Mehring Company’s foot-powered milking machine. The Mehring Company developed the mechanized milker in 1892 and was created to help increase the speed of milking and the sanitation of the process. The company manufactured these models through the 1920s, with more than 3000 units sold.

Mehring’s design featured a foot-peddled operating system. An advertisement for the product boasted a process that was so easy women and children could do it and a milking rate of 20 cows per hour. Sanitation was also a driving factor in the sale of this machine. The open milk buckets no longer had to sit in the open air beneath the cow, eliminating contaminates like dirt, hair, and germs often found in traditional milking practices.

Operating the machine was easy – hoses were attached to the cow’s udders. Rocking the foot treadle back and forth produced suction within the hoses. The milk would then be dispensed into the bucket to which the hoses were attached; only the bucket’s location was on the milker – not under the cow. Mehring used valve-controlled hoses, allowing the farmers to remove a hose from one teat without disrupting the suction from the others.

Surge Bucket Milker

Herbert McCornack invented the Surge Bucket Milker in 1922 using items from his family’s kitchen in the prototype (a roasting pan). The suction of McCornack’s design used a natural surging action as the milker moved back and forth during the process. The tug-and-pull motion created by the milker simulated a calf’s nursing. It was first tested at Four Pine Farm on Fred Babson’s Guernsey dairy cows. The Surge Bucket Milker was offered commercially to dairy farms in North America in 1923.

Original Surge Bucket Milkers were made using Monel Metal, which is an alloy consisting of 67% nickel, 28% copper, and small amounts of other metals (steel, iron, or aluminum). The metal was used because it held up against the harsh chemicals necessary to clean the milker, keep the process sanitary, and protect the taste of the milk at the time. A rare release was created in Nickel and marketed to farms that produced milk for babies and hospitals. Production and upgrades continued throughout the lifecycle of the Surge Bucket Milker, but with a decline in sales, it was discontinued in 1999.

Milking Today

With the technological advances throughout history, the early works always laid the foundation for the advancements we use today. The dairy farm and milking machine are no exception. From the humble beginnings of Mehring’s foot-powered milker and the Surge Bucket Milker – today, farmers are milking more cows and producing more milk thanks to Automatic Milking Systems (AMS). AMS is another term for robotic milking technology, which began in Europe in the early 1990s to address labor shortages. Now, most dairy farmers implement this technology to ensure faster milking, steadier production, and higher sanitation with less stress.

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