Sometime this fall, a modest but revolutionary crate of pipes, wires and computer connectors is going to be shipped from the Netherlands to a dairy research farm near Clarksville.

The jumble of equipment, one of the first robotic milking machines to make it out of the lab, looks like a plumber's nightmare. But University of Maryland researchers think it could mean the salvation of a dying institution, the small, family-run dairy farm.

R2D2, meet Bossie.

A Dutch company, Gascoigne-Melotte, has an agreement with Maryland's Agricultural Experiment Station to barn-test and refine a prototype milking robot, one that hooks up to the cow automatically, without a human in sight. Researchers here plan to find out just how receptive cows are to the idea -- basically, whether they can be trained to milk themselves.

"Cows already know to go back to feed every two hours," said Thomas W. Moreland, research manager at the university's Central Maryland Research and Education Center on Folly Quarter Road.

The center's 200 Holsteins are an elite bunch averaging more than 22,800 pounds of milk a year, nearly 3,000 pounds more than nonacademic cows, Moreland said.

As creatures of habit that can be trusted to amble into the same stalls every day to be milked at about the same time, cows are thought to be capable of bonding with a collection of pipes -- especially if they need to be milked or are quite hungry, Moreland said.

The robotic milker does more than just milk. It is designed to look after the comfort, health, production and eating habits of up to 40 cows, Moreland said. It can take the temperature of the milk, determine whether the cow has mastitis or is in heat, and send information to the computer about milk production.

Researchers think that the technology ultimately can be applied to other farm animals.

Reading messages sent by electoric transponders worn by the cows, the robotic milker identifies an approaching animal, checks with the computer record and decides whether enough time has passed for her to be milked again.

Once the computer gives the go-ahead, the milker's gate opens automatically and then closes behind the cow. The computer tells the device to dispense the amount of feed that cow is supposed to get, in the proper mix. Based on the cow's milk production, the feed is dispensed slowly enough to keep the animal content while her udder is cleaned.

The tricky part, Moreland said, is the hookup. The computer will know everything about each cow, including teat size and placement, but if the cow is nervous, the contraption may not stay attached, researchers have found.

Cows have long been accustomed to automatic milking machines, but they still need a human being to hook them up several times a day. Because small dairy operations can't afford to hire a lot of workers, milking is typically done by family members, Moreland said.

They end up being tied to the farm, he said. As a result, each year some Maryland farming families opt out of the dairy business. Often, their land then is eaten up by subdivision and their cattle are shipped to farm corporations or slaughterhouses.

From 1981 to 1987, the number of cows kept on Maryland farms to produce milk declined from 124,000 to 114,000, the state Department of Agriculture found.

"Kids don't want to stay on a small farm where they work seven days a week, 365 days a year," said Moreland. "You can't blame them. They want to go into a bigger operation, where there is a lot more income to be made."

The Netherlands, which is the size of Maryland, has many more cows and 47,000 small dairies, Moreland said. Researchers there have been working to perfect a computerized machine that can augment farm labor, he said.

"If the robotic milker is successful, look what it can do for the quality of life for the small dairymen," Moreland said.