I feel I’m living the dream when I help producers realize theirs. I have been fortunate to have been involved in some of the world’s largest robotic dairies, most notably Fundo El Risquillo in Chile which boasts 64 Milking robots as well as the installation of 24 robots in a US barn. This unique perspective has provided me with an exclusive insight into a wealth of possibilities.
What started in Europe as a solution for small and medium dairies, primarily to address labor concerns, has recently proven to be a great fit for large dairies. Although there were some large robotic projects early on, it was not until the last half decade that a group of large dairyman started seeing robotics as a viable option. Today there are several operations with hundreds and even thousands of cows milking with this technology.
Robotics have allowed small and medium size family farms to continue being viable while improving their quality of life. When large dairyman approach robotics for first time, they do so because of labor, specifically its cost, availability and quality. Based on data captured from DeLaval Voluntary Milking System (VMS™) customers, on average, robotics have helped them reduce labor by 47% to 60% while improving its quality.
In addition, the majority of large VMS customers have reported an increase in milk production between 8% and 10% even when coming from a milking frequency of 3X. I propose that this occurs primarily from adapting the system to every cow’s rhythm, less walking distance and waiting times while improving her overall wellbeing.
If these benefits make you contemplate robotic milking for your large herd, be sure to factor in these key considerations:
- Create a Vision and Future Plan
It doesn’t need to happen all at once. Create your vision to take advantage of modularity and flexibility, two of the main attributes of robotic milking. Dairies of 1,000, 3,000 or even 6,000 + cows have started with smaller robotic modules built for 500 to 750 cows. Most of the largest dairies have started their growth plans after one or two years of the first installation, either through new facilities or retrofitting existing ones.
- Define Your Growth Model Strategy
Planning the project begins with considering fresh and special needs cow handling. Two options include continuing to use your existing parlor/facilities, expanding out from the parlor with robots, or designing a completely robotic transition facility. Usually the most suitable solution is to keep the current facilities as the “nucleus” for transition cows with the addition of robotic barns. To grow at a later date, you simply mirror the model.
- Consider All Robotic Solutions
Robotic solutions go beyond the traditional robotic milking. There are also standalone solutions that are suitable for conventional rotary parlors. The most common installation currently is a blend of both, conventional milking centers with stand-alone robots for special needs cows and modules with conventional milking robots for low demanding cows, maximizing efficiencies in daily routines and cow performance.
- Design Your Team
A good estimate when considering labor is to plan your teams based on 200 cows per full time employee. Concentrate 60-80% of that labor on the nucleus herd including your best maternity and fresh cow crews. The remaining 20 – 40% high caliber managers can be allocated to the robotic modules.
- Define the Cow Traffic
While free flow and milk first pre-selection do a great job in realizing optimal productivity, large dairies tend to prefer milk first pre-selection. This is due to lower fetch rates, reduced labor cost, added flexibility on feeding strategies where most of the focus is toward PMR and feedbunk management.
- Analyze Cow Grouping
With a robotic milking system, each group will house animals in all stages of lactation, reproduction conditions and production levels. For a producer it means one single ration at the feedbunk for all cows and customized grain rations at the robot. This allows cows to perform the entire lactation within the same group, avoiding the stress of group changes and its impact on cow’s health.
- Plan Your Barn Design
With approximately 60% of robotic facilities being new and 40% being retrofits, it reinforces that either configuration could lead to great success. While one and two robots per pen have been very common, three per pen is becoming the new standard. Ideally you would like to accommodate as many robots per robot room, so that equipment and barn routines are efficiently performed.
Two and three rows of freestalls per side of the feedbunk work well. The important items to keep in mind are feedbunk space, distance to robots and a great bedding surface, sand being the most common choice. Additionally flush manure systems or mechanical scrapers are an ideal choice, tractor scraping is not recommended as it disturbs cows.
Dedicated special needs areas per pen are always recommended to optimize daily herd management routines. They do not replace headlocks, as those are still critical for important routines such as udder singeing, vaccinations and other general herd health routines.
- Keep Ventilation in Mind
Mechanical ventilation has gained in popularity since it tends to improve building costs while providing a consistent environment to the cows. Either tunnel or cross-ventilated barns minimize milk transport distances which allows more robots per milk pick-up center. Many situations still exist where natural ventilation is the best alternative. If this is the case, ensure that good cow cooling systems and strategies are in place. Remember air quality and temperature is critical for cow flow and overall productivity.
- Evaluate All Applicable Technologies
Robotic milking unlocks the door to many intriguing technologies. Do not miss the opportunity to incorporate some of them. The opportunities are endless, from measuring conductivity or somatic cell counts, activity, progesterone and (BHB) Beta-Hydroxibutyrate levels or even body condition scoring systems to monitor reproductive, herd health and feeding programs. These additions are modular and robots leave room for upgradability.
- Factor in the Total Running Cost
The capital cost obviously comes into play when making the final decision to invest in robotics. Make sure to research the running cost of the equipment. No one buys a car without expecting preventative maintenance throughout its life.
Experienced suppliers should provide detailed information on preventative maintenance programs, consumables and overall service cost and warranty programs. Once you have enough information, start to plan your expected return on investment (ROI) based on the capacity of the robot. The more milk you harvest per day, the greater the dilution of costs which will always be more effective. Today a reasonable number for running cost (excluding power and water) is between $0.63 and $0.82 per cwt., but this depends on a number of factors, including the efficiency of the dairy’s farm, herd management practices and proper transition to and start-up of robotics.
Robotics is booming in large dairies, regardless of geographies, and is becoming the next revolution in agriculture. I predict that in as little as one or two decades cows and calves will be somehow touched by a robot, either through a milking robot, a feeding robot, a teat spray robot or others left to be developed. The robotic trend has arrived and it is just going to grow. In the past, 20 robot barns were considered big; today we are exploring ways to make 72 and 128 robot facilities possible. The future is here and now for all producers of all sizes.