Robots have made their way to the farm and are trending in rapid rates as dairy producers adopt the new technology to efficiently produce high-quality milk. Dr. Rick Watters, a senior extension veterinarian with Cornell University, shared the management benefits of automatic milk installations at the 2016 Dairy Practices Council Conference held in East Lansing, Michigan.
The first robotic milk systems were installed in the Netherlands in 1992, and just seven years later, North America began to delve into robotic milking systems. Today there are close to 30,000 robots installed on 10,000 farms worldwide. There are approximately 3,000 now present on nearly 600 farms, milking 75,000 cows in the U.S.
The western U.S. is beginning to see larger robotic installations, and across the U.S. there are now 20 installations pending of 12 robots or more per farm. “The largest robot installation in North American is happening in Michigan with 24 robots being installed, and the largest in the world is being installed in Chili where they will have 64 robots to milk 4,500 cows,” Watters commented.
While larger installations seem to be the wave of the future, Watters said we continue to see two to four robot installations on farms today. “Part of this is because it is being used as an exit strategy where we don’t have the next generation that will come back to the farm and they need a change in lifestyle that needs to be less physical with a more flexible schedule,” Watters explained.
There are several goals to using robotic milking systems on the farm. One is to harvest high-quality milk in a clean and efficient manner while minimizing risks to the cow. Minimizing human-to-cow interaction is also an important goal. “We as humans need to realize we don’t need to interact with a cow as much as we think we need to,” Watters said.
Maximizing the number of cows through a robot or pounds of milk harvested through a robot will benefit producers in addition to using reports produced from the technology to identify cows at risk for health disorders. “We can use the technology to actually mitigate the risk of transferring disease-causing organisms within the herd,” Watters said.
While the number one reason producers are switching to robots is for flexibility in lifestyle, labor efficiency is a close second. But as Watters explained, on the majority of the installations, which is usually a two-robot farm, the labor efficiency is just not there. He explained, “If we have two robots and it’s a family farm with maybe two employees, they can’t eliminate an employee, but it allows them to refocus their efforts on management to find the weak link or maybe focus on reproduction or nutritional needs.” The real savings on labor is found on the large robotic dairies.
“The other reason for installing robots is information. Some of the people who have robots really like the computer software side of the technology and how they can use it for reproductive issues, finding metabolic issues, lameness or milk quality,” Watters said.
“Robotic management begins when you first start talking about going to a robot, and it really comes down to the very first question you have to ask: Are you willing to sit at a computer and monitor reports to manage your herd?” Watters said. “If you’re not, then the discussion is over and you shouldn’t install robots because it requires two to three times a day of looking at reports to make sure you are efficiently harvesting milk and using it to its capacity.”
Management of the robots improves efficiency and longevity of the system, and there are routine tasks that need to be done on a daily, weekly and monthly basis. Automation does not mean less manual tasks. Proper management of the robots also minimizes the risk of the robot being a vector for the movement of mastitis-causing organisms. “We can actually block animals with a known mastitis history from being milked on all the robots in addition to allowing them to be milked at specific times of the day, and we can add an extra backflush or rinse after an at-risk cow is milked,” Watters said.
The system reports also provide equipment-monitoring specifications. The robot will report if there is a mechanical issue, when the liners and other rubber goods need to be replaced, in addition to milking times of the front and rear teats. Maintenance costs for a robot ranges from $7,000 to $12,000 per year.
In terms of visually monitoring the cows, Watters suggested using cameras. “Cameras are super important to the efficiency of a robot.” Interrupting the natural flow of the cattle can be kept at a minimum when using cameras to detect a bottleneck in the traffic flow to the robot.
Milk quality is monitored with robots with real-time values at the level of the quarter with the cow as its control. There are multiple repeated measurements at the level of the teat, within the cow and multiple times per day. The software compares the cow to itself when determining if the cow is at risk. “The sensitivity of the data is very high as an indicator that something is going on with the cow,” Watters said.
As a result of robotic technology, the information gathered has become more specific. Not only will it continue to monitor milk yield, fat and protein levels at the udder level, but there is also now information available that is specific to each quarter of the udder in real time. Milk yield, average milk flow, milking time, conductivity, SCC and color are all levels that can be monitored by the quarter. And lactose, average milk flow and milk temperature can be monitored at the udder level. This allows the producer to be more proactive and less reactive in management.
Success with robots comes when routine maintenance tasks are performed in a timely manner, cow reports are monitored throughout the day, there is an optimal barn design, high-quality feed and when producers observe cows with limited human-to-cow interaction. “Cows will adapt quicker than people,” Watters concluded.
Melissa Hart is a freelance writer from North Adams, Michigan.
PHOTO: Robotic milking systems not only change labor requirements on the farm, but also how cows are managed. Photo by Karen Lee.