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Robotic Milking Systems - What We've Learned So Far (Part 1)

Timothy Terry, Farm Strategic Planning Specialist

June 4, 2018
Robotic Milking Systems - What We've Learned So Far (Part 1)

I was recently invited to participate in a robotic farming discussion group. The evening began with a few presentations by a robot manufacturer which, surprisingly, were less about sales and more about start-up and management of the systems and the cows. These proved to be good fodder for a fruitful discussion among the technical service people, dairymen and women, and other industry people in attendance, like yours truly. This discussion meet continued the next day with a tour of three farms currently using robotic milking systems (RMS) - two in the Finger Lakes and one in western NY.  Both the discussion and the tour brought to light some interesting concepts regarding robotic milking systems.  I managed to glean several pages of notes on these concepts, but I'll try to distill them down into something more manageable to take home.  So here they are in no particular order.

  • The three areas where RMS's can have the greatest influence are: feeding, cows, and labor.
  • Feeding - In any group situation some are underfed and some are overfed.  In either case this is very inefficient, both economically and energetically. The Partial Mixed Ration (PMR) and the grain through the robot allow you to customize the diet to each cow which can increase feed efficiency. The general rule-of-thumb for formulating the PMR is herd or group production average minus 15 lbs. milk.  Balance the remainder of the individual requirements with the grain in the robot. This prevents over- / underfeeding, but still gives the lower producers in the group some incentive to visit the robot.  Some newer versions of the robot are allowing for dispensing of multiple feeds in multiple forms - liquid, mash, pellets, or a combination. Some unpublished comparisons of robotic manger sweepers vs. skid loader/tractor have shown a 3% increase in milk yield for the robot sweeper, as well as more consistent dry matter intakes (DMI) - likely a function of feed availability.  The robot also produces 75% less CO2 and uses less than 10% of the energy. (I also wonder about the ancillary benefits of consistent DMI - reduced slug feeding and subacute rumen acidosis, butterfat drops, lameness, DA's, etc.)
  • Cows - The RMS allows her individuality to shine. The boringly consistent process of prepping and milking is just what the cow ordered. She spends far less time standing than in a parlor setup -- when she's not eating or milking she's lying down (each hour of rest ≈ 3-5 lbs.) Real-time data is collected on every cow and deviations outside of "normal" are flagged for review.  As such, symptoms of illness are detected earlier, and treatment regimens are often shorter and more effective.
  • Labor - On average, changing from a parlor to an RMS results in a 40% reduction in labor devoted to milking.  This gives you the option of reducing the labor force, reassigning the labor to another enterprise, or increasing the herd size without increasing the labor force.  Moreover, you can spend more of your time managing cows and less time on rote labor tasks. With the advent of $15/hr. minimum wage, an RMS will have a payback of 5-7 years based on labor costs alone.  Furthermore, an RMS never shows up late, tired, drunk, or not at all.  It also does not come with a difficult significant other.  Some of the impetus for installing an RMS on the tour farms was because of a transient and unpredictable labor force.  On more than one occasion did they deal with a sudden workforce reduction due to an ICE raid in the neighborhood.
  • Of the three main milking systems - parlor, pipeline, or RMS - RMS's tend to have the lowest total cost of ownership.  Some of this may be a function of the self-diagnostics in the RMS programming.  It will alert you to service issues when it is a nickel or dime fix versus waiting until it becomes a $5 or $10 fix. Add to this any lost production due to delays or poor performance.
  • RMS's in sand bedded herds do require more repairs and maintenance than sawdust or straw bedded herds due to sand's abrasive nature.  However, this only amounts to an average of $250/RMS/year.  If the RMS is servicing 55-60 cows and milk is $15/cwt, this only requires a 0.1 lb./cow/day increase to break even. Many herds have seen an 8-10 lb. increase after switching to sand, so is sand worth it? Yeah!
  • The better the stalls are maintained and the more comfortable it is the fewer fetch cow you'll have.  We don't know why this is true, but it is what's happening out there. 


Next month: more important tidbits on robotic milking.

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