Robotic Milking: Expectations vs. Reality
Ryan Calistro, TDS CCO & Partner
The “dairy of the future” is quickly becoming “the dairy of today.” More than 35,000 robots are milking cows around the world. While several benefits of robotic milking have long been proven, true success comes from individual, realistic goals and expectations, followed by aligned execution.
Dairy managers can expect a lot from robots – both positive and negative. Some expectations are myths, while others can quickly become reality depending on management practices.
Expectation: I can get rid of a lot of labor.
Reality: You can shift your labor needs. Studies have shown a labor savings of anywhere from zero to 29%. This wide range is a product of variance in management and barn design. A University of Minnesota study of 53 robot farms showed that even when total labor is similar, time saved from milking is used for activities, such as improving animal health, analyzing records, improving reproduction, and more timely forage harvest.
Expectation: I won’t be able to justify the cost of robots.
Reality: The speed of return on investment for robots depends first on capital investment – whether robots are part of a retrofit, or they’re added to an entirely new barn. Second, management of cow flow through the robot and maintenance will largely impact the profitability of the system. In a retrofit, if you’re able to increase production by two pounds per cow, and the system lasts longer than ten years, it will be more profitable than the previous setup. In a new barn, it will take ten additional pounds per cow and a savings in labor to be consistently more profitable than the old system. Whether it’s a retrofit or new barn, don’t forget to consider the less tangible factors, including cow comfort and the ability to identify and focus on herd management issues around the barn.
Expectation: Milk quality will go down.
Reality: Robotic milking removes the potential for human error that we sometimes see in the parlor. If the milking system is well maintained, with regular flushing and adherence to the recommended cleaning schedule, you’ll likely be able to maintain the same level of SCC you had in your previous setup. Also keep the rest of the cow’s environment in mind: the cleanliness of the rest of the barn has a big impact on exposure to bacteria.
Expectation: I can have some freedom from the farm.
Reality: With the right management systems in place and the ability to see what’s going on straight from your phone, you may in fact be able to leave the farm more often than you used to. Your management responsibilities do not end after robots are installed. Instead, they shift. In order to be comfortable leaving the farm, managers must have a good understanding of their mobile access to the system, the data that’s coming from it, and knowledge of the alarms they may receive – along with a plan in case something does come up.
Expectation: I can put 70 cows in one robot.
Reality: With the right management, this is possible. But do not expect to successfully flow 70 cows through one robot on the first day it’s installed – even for the first several weeks. Only the best-managed barns are effectively moving 70 cows through each robot, and it takes a full-farm, team-based approach to make it happen. Dairies that are able to reach this level of efficiency have their feeding programs dialed in, a thorough transition cow plan, minimal disruptions in the pen, and a well-designed barn.