In 2000, the first automatic milking system was installed in the U.S. Slow, then rapid, growth had robots popping up across the Midwest and Northeast; however, the technology wasn’t moving West – until now.
Several new automatic milking systems have started up in Utah, Idaho, Oregon and Washington in the past year.
“Labor is harder to get, and it’s becoming more and more expensive. The quality of labor isn’t as good. It is a constant struggle these guys are having. Robots are a good solution for that problem,” Mark Brown says.
As the general manager for DeLaval Dairy Service in the Tillamook, Salem and Rochester regions in Oregon and Washington, Brown has been working in this industry for 26 years. “Anytime there are laws that come out that either make labor more expensive or harder to get, it always increases sales in automation,” he says.
Brown is working with six robotic farms now operational and two in the process of adding robots. The farms range in size from 60 to 360 cows.
Klark Gailey with Dairy Systems Company in northern Utah and southern Idaho also cites labor as the main reason interest in automation has grown in his area. In addition to milking robots, he is seeing dairy producers adopt automatic feeding and barn cleaning solutions to not only reduce the need for additional labor but also improve quality of life for the dairyman.
“The newer generation coming in is not always willing to work the way their fathers have, with not being able to leave the farm,” Gailey says. “Robotic milking is allowing them to set their own schedule.”
Gailey put in three new robotic milking installations last year and has another one in progress. The farms he has worked with range in size from 100- to 250-cow farms, but he has had interest from farms that are much larger.
He says there has been a perception that robots are not for large dairy operations, but farms across the country and world are proving that to be false.
After taking owners of dairies with 1,000-plus cows on some robot tours, Gailey says, “They really like the approach.”
He continues, “Rather than building a big parlor that they have to have running at capacity so they don’t go broke with the big investment, with robots they can start out and take small steps.
Build housing and grow a shed at a time [with robots in each shed]. They can take small steps and continue to grow, which is a fantastic thing.”
Brown agrees that automatic milking can be a solution for large dairies and adds that more and more larger farms are looking at it.
Historically, labor has been more expensive in the Midwest and Canada, which is why the adaptation of robotic milking in those two areas went quicker and sooner there.
“It was easier for the banks to get on board,” Brown says. “Now that the technology is proven and banks are more confident, it’s really starting to fire up out here.”
Five to seven years ago, the area was struggling to find available financing. Brown says his first two projects were financed with banks in the Midwest that were more familiar with automatic milking systems. Now that there are farms in the West using the technology, banks have grown familiar with the concept and the results that can come from it.
Brown says local banks are now hosting workshops to educate their dairy customers about the option of installing automatic milking systems.
Labor is not the only savings farms can expect from automatic milking systems. Gailey says farms can typically expect an increase in milk per cow, a decrease in the cost of feed per hundredweight of milk, an improvement in milk quality and savings in electricity, chemical and water usage.
After building a new freestall barn with two milking robots, Tom Griffin of Circle T Dairy in Trenton, Utah, reports a boost in milk production of 18 percent. His herd was averaging 72 pounds of milk per cow per day being milked twice a day in a flat barn, and they now yield 85 pounds of milk per cow per day with an average of three visits per cow per day to the robots. “That’s been a benefit,” Griffin says.
He had been milking 100 cows in a barn built in the 1900s which his grandfather and father had used. “It began to fall down around us. We knew we had to do something different and weighed out all of our options,” he says.
Griffin visited local dairies with parlors and robot farms in Michigan and British Columbia.
“After seeing the dairies with [robots], how comfortable the cows were – relaxed, not pushed around, just kind of doing their own thing – that was really cool to us,” Griffin says.
He adds, “Everyone we talked to – and we viewed a lot of new facilities in our area – all complained about labor issues with milking their cows. That was the main thing that drove us this direction.”
The new, completely covered barn with robots arranged in an L-shaped design with free-flow cow traffic was operational on July 7, 2015. Griffin is now milking 111 cows with plans to push up to 120.
The family farm consists of Griffin, his nephew, his brother-in-law and his father, who at 76 years old is “retired” but still mixes feed every day. Without having to milk cows every day, they can better focus on herd management and cropping 500 acres of barley, corn and alfalfa.
“We’re able to monitor individual cows much more closely,” Griffin says. “It makes you realize how much certain little things, such as a slight limp, can hurt production. Rather than pay attention to milking cows, we’re able to pay attention in a lot greater detail.”
He says the farm is also benefiting from the activity-based heat detection system the robotic milking system offers. “Being able to sort those cows off into the sorted pen to breed right on time is a huge benefit as well.”
The farm has improved its pregnancy rate because there are fewer and fewer open cows at each preg check. Griffin attributes this to being able to breed at the optimum time as well as catching cows through the detection system that have more of a silent heat.
Don Averill opted to install an automatic milking system instead of a parlor facility when it was time to expand his milking capacity.
His 700-cow herd near Tillamook, Oregon, is a mix of half Jersey and Jersey-cross and half Holstein.
He installed six robots to milk up to 360 cows and continues to operate his existing double-15 parallel parlor to milk the other half of the herd.
The robots have been running for nine months, and Averill reports the cows on the robot are up about 7 pounds of milk per cow compared to those at the parlor farm. They are averaging 2.6 milkings per day in a guided-flow, feed-first arrangement. Some cows are getting milked four or five times a day and others just once or twice.
“That is a plus with the [robots]; the cow can basically do what she wants. Cows in early lactation are granted to come in more often and milk, the ones later in lactation that don’t feel like they need to be milked as often, then so be it,” Averill says.
At 78 pounds of milk per cow per day, he says, “We’re probably not where we need to be, but we are still gaining.”
Averill says he hoped to see an increase of 10 pounds per cow, which might still come with the annual change in spring forages, which are fresh-cut with more grass.
The herd has also seen benefits in a reduction in days in milk and the fact that when cows return to the robots after calving, they don’t need to be retrained. “When they calve back in, they know what’s going on. They’re ready to work. It’s a big benefit,” he says.
With the same amount of cows at each location, his robot facility has four employees, while the parlor requires six.
Averill would eventually like to be at eight robots. “I could put two more robots in and another 120 cows and not have to add any more labor,” he says.
Both dairymen express that the adoption of this technology doesn’t come without some challenges.
“Teat location is a problem,” Averill says. In fact, udder placement was the main decision factor in which cows would move to the robotic facility and which ones would stay in the parlor.
Poor teat placement can lead to incomplete hook-ups, which can result in more mastitis cases.
Averill says he went with robots instead of a parlor to have less labor and to be able to free his farm team up to do other things.
“We’re not quite doing that yet,” he says. “As we learn the robots and what we need to manage it and maintain it, it will come.”
After struggling with some start-up issues, he admits the last month to 45 days have gotten better.
“Basically you’re relying on equipment, so you’ve got to maintain the equipment so it does what you want it to do,” Averill says. “It’s a little bit of a mindset change by relying on equipment versus relying on labor.”
Brown acknowledges the transition that takes place when learning how to use this new technology. “The cows actually adapt fairly quick,” he says. “There’s two to three hard weeks, but after a couple of months they’ve got it under their belts.
“Some dairymen can take longer, from three months to nearly a year, before being comfortable with it. For different reasons,” Brown adds.
One reason is because people are not as close to cows compared to actually milking them in a parlor. With robots, they rely more on data to help with management decisions rather than being out with the cows.
“That’s a pretty big transition for some dairymen to manage differently,” Brown says.
Griffin mentions getting used to all of the information was difficult at first. Not only trying to sift out the data that was most relevant but also to relax and just let the robot work.
In the end, he says, “It’s definitely an advantage to not have to do the day-to-day milking and have all of that information at your fingertips to better take care of your cows.”
Gailey notes the robots don’t take away all of the work on the farm. “You still have to treat cows and do maintenance on the robots. It isn’t like you can take off and go on a cruise. It does, however, eliminate tasks required at the exact time every day.”
He says a couple of producers have shared with him that with automatic milking, they can now watch an entire Super Bowl game or keep chopping corn into the evening when the storm is on its way.
Dairymen aren’t the only ones that need to make adjustments to their management style; milking equipment dealers need to change their mindset as well.
“We, as dealers, never looked beyond the holding pen,” Brown says. Generally speaking, once a parlor was turned on, their job was done.
Brown notes that with robotics, start-up means the job is only half-done. He has added a veterinarian and nutritionist who specialize in robots to provide the resources he needs for his clients once they are operational.
“It’s a very big paradigm shift,” he says. “There is a real need for specialists in this field to help.”
Future in the West
“I think [automatic milking is] going to exponentially grow faster and faster. There’s just huge interest,” Brown says. “Every time we’ve had any kind of a producer meeting or informational meeting, it’s a packed house. We had more than 200 dairymen in five states come to an open house this fall.”
Gailey adds that this technology will continue to interest dairy producers in the western U.S. looking to start a new milking facility or replace an existing parlor. “They can skip the big payroll downstream and look for quality of milk and their milk supply to improve,” he says.
Even though producers in the western U.S. have been slower to adopt automatic milking technology, the potential for growth may one day see this area having the largest concentration of robots in the country. PD
PHOTO: Cows are milked at Mesman Farms in northwest Washington state. Photo by Mike Dixon.
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