Two years ago, Curtis Nolan was sure renovating the milking parlor was the next step for Kenyon Hill Farm, his family’s dairy in northeastern New York, which is operated by Nolan; his dad, Mike; and his brothers, Shane and Ryan.
The Nolans had built a new barn in 2009 to improve efficiencies but found that labor was still an issue and began looking at more options.
“We weren’t even thinking about robots initially,” Curtis Nolan says. “Our cows were milked three times a day in a double-six parlor. The cows would spend two hours standing in the holding area.”
Paul Godin from Lely Center Vermont initially introduced the family to automatic milking as an option to manage labor and increase cow comfort. Godin arranged for the Nolans to visit robotic barns in the Midwest to give the family an up-close look at this milking style and type of facility.
“After learning more about robots and seeing robot barns, we stopped thinking we would renovate the parlor,” Nolan says. “When we visited robot barns, we could tell a difference right away. It was so calm and quiet. If a cow can be lying down or eating, she’s better off than standing, waiting to be milked. That’s a big difference.”
With help, the Nolans determined the best layout for retrofitting their barn and implemented a design for free-cow traffic. They did some construction on their barn and, in September 2015, they began milking with four robotic milking systems.
Robotic milking will work in most barn layouts, but certain design features improve traffic flow, cow comfort and the overall success of a robotic milking facility, according to Jack Rodenburg with DairyLogix Consulting in Ontario.
Whether you’re building a new dairy barn or retrofitting old barns, consider the size of the barn based on the number of cows in the operation. Consider the location of the barn and how it will be oriented, think about access to driveways and roads, access to utilities, how the terrain will impact site preparation costs and ventilation, and potential for future growth.
“Farmers should avoid cutting costs on items that relate to cow comfort, since those decisions can lead to decreased production and poor animal health, ultimately costing more money later on,” Rodenburg says. “Comfortable cows make for well, productive cows.”
He recommends owners consider these issues with barn designs:
- First, provide facilities for efficient separation and handling of individual cows.
“Even if farmers aren’t milking anymore, they may spend extra time moving cows around if they haven’t thought about an efficient way to handle individual cows,” he says.
- Second, consider an area for special-needs cows, such as fresh cows or lame cows.
“You would like to have those cows in an area of the barn, close to the robots, where they are going to thrive,” Rodenburg says.
- Third, sometimes we fail to recognize the importance of behavior and social rank of cows. This can affect how cows move through the system.
When building a robot barn, a producer must decide between free-cow traffic or guided-traffic design. In free-cow traffic barns, cows have access to feeding and resting areas with no restriction.
“I design barns for both, but for me, cow comfort is absolutely key,” he says. “For that reason, I have a strong preference for free traffic.”
The key to managing free-cow traffic systems is to have adequate space in front of robots. Rodenburg recommends 20 feet from the milking box to the first freestall. He also recommends locating cow brushes, computer feeders and pasture selection gates far away from this area to spread out barn activity.
In a successful robot barn, everything is done according to the cows’ natural instincts.
“You have to be the coach who teaches the cows to do it on their own,” Rodenburg says.
He recommends that big equipment in the barn be eliminated or kept to a minimum because it disrupts the cows. He also suggests farms run their robots under-capacity.
“I know they are expensive, but if you want to get 45 to 50 kilograms (99 to 110 pounds) of milk per cow, don’t put 70 cows on the robot,” he says. “There is a point where the overall stress on the cows and you starts to go up incrementally.”
PHOTO: Curtis Nolan and his family operate Kenyon Hill Farm. They did some construction on their barn and in September 2015, began milking with four robotic milking systems. Photo provided by Lely North America.
- Senior Farm Management Support Consultant/Veterinarian
- Lely Canada
- Email Sara McBurney