Robotic Milking: Is It For You?

Written by: Brant Groen, Form-A-Feed Dairy Nutrition and Production Specialist

"What do you think of robotic milkers?" I get this question almost weekly from dairy producers.  I’ll give you my short answer. It is the right thing to do for some farms, but you still need to like cows, work with cows, and manage cows.

I personally work with several robot milking farms.  I am Lely certified – Level 1, Level 2 & Advanced. I have also attended 5 days of training with DeLaval.  That does not mean I know it all, as it relates to robotic milking, but what it does mean is that Form-A-Feed and our nutritional team have a keen interest in working with robotic milking farms and seeing their success.

Have you been thinking about remodeling or building new facilities and utilizing the robotic milking technology?  In this blog, I would like to discuss some key points to consider if you are thinking about moving in that direction with your dairy operation.

1. Management of cows. It’s not much different than doing conventional milking.  Yes, the robotic milking system and it’s software may help you manage you cows better and differently.  However, you still need to feed, breed, vaccinate, observe, treat, bed, clean, do daily maintenance and the list goes on.  The bottom line is you still need to spend a lot of time in the barn.  Your time may be spent, in some ways, differently, but this time will help improve cow performance (which is required to help pay for your new system).  Cows love routine, and robotic milkers give you that.

2. How many cows per robot?  Usually 55-60 depending on how intensely you want to manage.  The goal is to get at least 5,000 lbs. of milk/day/robot (some produces can far exceed this number).  At 60 cows that’s 83.5 lbs./cow/day.  At 55 cows it’s 91 lbs./cow/day.

3. How much more milk will I need to pay for the remodeling (or building new) and adding robots?  Based on numbers I have seen when farms are building cash flows and repayment plans, it is about 5-10 lbs. (depending on cost and total debt).  Work with your local farm business management instructor as they are extremely knowledgeable and helpful.

4. Building design. Before you build or remodel, visit with several successful robotic farms.  Concrete is so permanent and cow flow is so critical in a robot milking facility.  It is very important that cows have easy access to the robots. Visits to the robot and the feed bunk are king. You want cows to totally go to the robot on their own, have an easy way for one person to handle cows (even fresh heifers), and prevent boss cows from blocking the entrance to the robot.  There are also so many other things to consider like cow comfort, ventilation, water and bunk space but that will be for another article.

5. Some critical cow factors:

Feet and Legs. Cows must have very good feet and legs so they want to freely walk for feed and milking.

Clean cows. Cows must be clean for robots to effectively milk the cows.  Robots cannot effectively clean dirty teats, and a dirty udder contaminates the robotic arm.

Low Days in Milk (DIM). Getting cows bred back on time is super critical.  Many cows over 300 DIM lose their drive to go to the robot.

6. Feed is critical. To maximize milk production, feed efficiency and visits to the robot, the PMR (Partial Mixed Ration) and robot pellet (quality and quantity) must be totally in tune.  DMI at the bunk and moisture levels of the feeds must be monitored closely.  The robot pellet must be of high quality (with minimal fines) and be consistent load after load (needs to taste, look and smell the same).

Take Home Message:

Robot milking systems do work and work well when the correct systems of management are in place.  Have the correct mind set going into this management system. Know that the amount of time you need to spend with your cows/dairy may not change a lot, however, the robotic milking system will allow you more time to concentrate on areas of management needed for improved cow performance and health.  Don’t hesitate to contact Form-A-Feed if you would like to discuss robotic milking, management & nutrition in more detail.