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Robotic Milking Systems - What We've Learned So Far (Part 2)

Timothy Terry, Farm Strategic Planning Specialist

July 6, 2018
Robotic Milking Systems - What We've Learned So Far (Part 2)

Here are some more of those important tidbits I promised.

  • Minimize the obstacles to and from the robot itself.  There should be a minimum of 8' of clearance at the entrance and exit of a single robot, but 14' between robots in tandem.
  • Sort pens are difficult to size.  Of the three farms we toured none utilized sort pens.  They all felt that it would be empty >80% of the time and that the money would be better invested in several strategically placed gates and manger headlocks.
  • Fetch pens (where you gather cows that haven't visited the robot lately) are best kept small and temporary.  When you fetch a cow you want to put her into the robot right away so she gets the idea that it's important to go to the robot. Generally, you'll fetch the cows only one or two at a time. Placing her/them in a small pen will encourage them to enter the robot ASAP.  Blocking entrance traffic from the rest of the herd until the fetch cows are milked will help speed the process.  It's not unlikely that a cow has to be fetched only because she is a little timid.  By blocking other traffic it leaves her more comfortable to enter the robot.  The pen should be temporary only in the sense that once the fetch cows are milked the gates can be lifted or swung out of the way so that the entrance is not obstructed. That said, whether sorting or fetching, it's important to think strategically about placing the gates.  By opening and/or closing the right gates, one person should be able to easily sort or fetch a cow.   
  • RMS barns tend to be much quieter.  As such the cow's behavior becomes more docile and workable, so sorting or fetching is not usually the rodeo it used to be when cows were gathered up 2-3 times per day.  In some cases they become obnoxiously friendly, which means servicing a waterer or circulation fan can become a mob scene.  
  • With few exceptions, a Free Flow strategy works better than Guided Flow.  In Free Flow a cow is able to get up and get a drink or bite to eat and then lay down which maximizes lying time (see previous).  In Guided Flow she has to proceed through the robot before or after her meal in order to lie down again.  Depending on the traffic at the robot this will increase her standing time and cut into her lying time.  It could also contribute to a slug feeding behavior as she may opt for only a few large meals hours apart in order to avoid going through the robot. Moreover, this puts additional, unproductive pressure on the robot because she will have to cycle through the robot and this takes time away from other animals attending the robot.
  • Place waterers right outside the exit of the robot. Just like in a parlor, cows will drink the majority of their water immediately following milking.  However, this waterer should be at least 10' away (15' better) from the robot exit so as to not hinder cow flow.
  • Figure an RMS to service a maximum of 60 cows.  More than this and wait times increase and daily visits decrease - you'll want to aim for that 2.8-2.9 visits/cow/day target.  In practice 55-58 cows per RMS is better, especially in higher producing groups or herds.  This allows animals to cycle through comfortably, including those peak production animals coming 4-6 times/day, as well as give you some downtime for daily maintenance.
  • Start up an RMS at only 80% of capacity (<50 cows/robot).  This gives the cows time to learn the robot and vice-versa.  Cycle times for each cow will be longer until they get used to the sounds and sensations associated with the system.  Don't limit the visitations during the first few days.  If a cow wants to visit 19 times, let her, however, you may want to limit grain feeding after the third or fourth visit. The RMS experience should be as pleasurable as possible.
  • Switching to an RMS doesn't have to be all or nothing.  In fact, switching in a group-by-group manner will make the transition easier while also taking some pressure off the existing system.  This may get you a few more years out of that aged parlor, and give you a way to milk the older cows who are more likely to refuse the RMS.  In smaller herds the group-by-group manner may not be an option.  However, starting with a small group of early lactation cows and then adding to the group as cows freshen in may work better.


Next month I'll conclude with the reasons and considerations the tour farms cited in making their decision to install an RMS.

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