Ten years from now, more than half of the cows in the United States will be milked by robots, predicts UW Professor Doug Reinemann, Ph.D., during the recent What’s New with Dairy Facilities program hosted by UW-Extension in Green Bay, Dec. 13.
“The adoption rate has been pretty much exponential from the start and really shows no signs of slowing down,” he told dairy producers and industry professionals. Right now, there are around 150 farms in the United States and 350 farms in Canada milking their cows with robots. The highest concentration of the technology is in western Wisconsin and eastern Minnesota.
However, automated milking systems are not a solve-all device simply for replacing labor. As Reinemann pointed out, they are sophisticated data collection systems that raise the bar for managers.
His key message to producers considering robots on their dairies: if you are going to do robotic milking, you’ve got to really sit down and think about how you will capture the return on that investment. For newly constructed robotic systems, he estimates the investment per cow at roughly $3,000. One-third to half of that cost is in the box, which is why maintaining a steady cow flow in and out of the milking box is one of the critical components of successfully implementing an automated milking system.
Most dairies with robots use single-box systems. Typically, one box is connected to a pen with 50 to 70 cows.
“The goal is to keep the box busy,” he stated. Barns are designed for either forced or free cow movement. In a forced cow traffic design, a series of one-way gates directs cows from the resting area to the milking box and then to the feeding areas. In a free cow traffic design, there are no gates guiding movement to designated areas. In both systems, cows enter the box because they learn that they will be rewarded with feed.
Looking at the numbers, Reinemann said that both systems are showing similar results as far as performance measures like voluntary and total daily milkings, dry matter intake and milk production. Further studies could indicate greater differences in one system over the other, he cautions, “We are still learning how to run these things.”
For this reason, he advised producers designing barns for robots to accommodate either forced or free cow traffic. “If you are designing a barn, think about designing your barn in such a way that you could do either one,” he stated. “Give yourself a little room to design the barn in such a way that you could start with free-cow traffic, but also have the option to go to forced-cow traffic.”
Because cow traffic is so important to the success of the robot, barn needs to be designed to encourage cow movement. This is best accomplished when robots are installed in a barn specifically engineered for this purpose. Modifying an existing barn may not encourage the cow flow necessary to keep the milking box occupied.
While good cow flow is one aspect of achieving profitability with robotic milking systems, utilizing the available data to better manage the herd is the other crucial factor.
“It’s an absolute requirement on a robotic milking farm, in order to return on the investment, you’ve got to have somebody on the farm who really likes computers,” Reinemann emphasized. “You are not going to get the return on investment by labor savings. If you just look at it as a labor-saving device, you are never going to get your return on the investment.”
The real returns come from making use of the data to better manage the herd. Profits can be captured in areas such as milk production, milk quality, and feeding when management decisions are made based on the numbers collected from the robotic system.
“This is not for people with less than average management skills – it is for people with better than average management skills,” he added. “When you get a robot, your management skills must get better.”
That being said, the success of a robotic milking system is reflective of the dairy’s management prior to installation. As Reinemann noted, most dairies do not drastically improve production or milk quality when the sytems go in. Those with low somatic cell counts tend to maintain that with robots; likewise, those with less-than-stellar milk quality will probably not see significant improvements from robots alone.
“The technology is a tool for management,” he reiterated. “The cell count is a function of management decisions.”
Overall, Reinemann has observed a high success rate with robotic milking systems. He did, however, identify reasons for failure. Some early systems were taken out because the manufacturer went out of business and could no longer service them. Others were unsuccessful because the management style did not adapt. He described, “The person who put them in had the idea that they could put in a robot, turn it on and walk away.”
“Robots are not smart. Robots are not good cow managers,” he said. “People are smart. People are good cow managers, and they use the robot as a tool. If you are expecting the robot to do the management tasks, you will fail.”