Whether expanding, starting up a robotic dairy using first-lactation animals, or transitioning parlor or tiestall cows to a robot, many dairy farmers run into the same problem: There are some cows that struggle to adapt to the new system. 

It is understood a percentage of cows will fail in transitioning to the new system. This has been seen in the past as dairies tried to move multilactation animals from a tiestall setup to a loose-housing situation. The goal then is to decrease the number of failed animals that must involuntarily leave the herd and that can be achieved using these four methods:

  • Pre-train heifers to use the robot.
  • Create desired movement in present fetch cows.
  • Offer options for the transition to the milking herd, including a separate post-fresh parlor.
  • Consider animal-handling skills of the personnel.

1. Train pre-fresh heifers

Pre-fresh training, or conditioning, of animals to the system is one of the more effective methods that can be employed to increase acceptance of changes that will occur with parturition. This training can occur with the use of a robotic setup shell in a heifer or pre-fresh pen.

The shell should be identical to the current shell in the milking barn with the exception of the milk-harvesting equipment. ID and teat spraying may be two options to consider in this shell. ID will help to identify visits to the shell to determine individuals needing additional training. The teat spray may be set to be applied when the animal is at risk for a mammary infection just prior to calving. 

Offering a small portion of the animals’ energy needs on a daily basis in the pre-fresh group shell will help promote visits. This creates a conditioned response and ultimately, habit, prior to the rigors of calving and the subsequent change of environment and diet. Giving the animals opportunity to use the robotic shell a minimum of 30 days prior to calving can increase their acceptance for dairies that place the shell in the pre-fresh area.


This amount of time enables the animal to adjust to the milking environment and energy source prior to her decline in intake just before calving. Pre-training animals to the robotic shell should be considered an investment in the animals rather than an additional expense of time and labor. 

2. Create desired movement with fetch cows

Creating desired, controlled movement in your present fetch animals may require removing them from their current environment, as a group or individually, and creating the desired movement by applying the correct pressure in a neutral environment, like an outside exercise lot ,where there are no established patterns or habits.

Creating the desired movement in the fetch animals can be a lengthy process. Depending on the age and locomotion degree, it may take up to two weeks to recondition an individual animal. At some point in that process, if the desired results are not being achieved, consideration should be given to replacing the animal.  Or, if the cow is of greater value, consider harvesting the milk in an alternate system if that option is available.  

If it’s not possible to take the cows out of their present environment to create the desired movement, you may try using a temporary or permanent Bud box approach on the entrance to your robot. When using a Bud box, it can sometimes be a very difficult task to convince people to not force animals toward the unit, but to use her desire to return to where she came from to enter the unit.

Training staff to start at the point you want your animal to go, particularly in the first visits to the unit, will ease the stress on both the animal and the staff person.

3. Offer options for the transition to the milking herd

There seems to be a general opinion in the industry that once a dairy converts to robotics, there is no need for another approach to milk animals. A controlled situation around the milking process for one to three days or until an animal is accepting of the prep and milking process can be very beneficial. This may be a previously used parlor or possibly a flat parlor in a new setting. Although this does have an additional cost in staff, maintenance, chemicals and other overhead costs, it can have a positive impact in the retention of primiparous animals. 

The two primary facility designs used in robotic barns today are free-flow and controlled-flow. Both can be effectively integrated if managed to leverage the natural instincts of the animals. One of those instincts is an animal’s preference to return to where they came from. Placement of the robot within a pen or facility to leverage this instinct can be very effective.

The system you choose is ultimately a matter of personal preference and available dealer support for that system. Constraints of each system and facility design must be considered in the decision-making process.  

4. Consider animal-handling skills of the personnel

Arguably, the most important investment to consider is the training of the individuals interacting with the animals. While management sometimes tends to focus on broader aspects of the dairy, it is equally important to invest in training people in proper animal handling. The overall application of stockmanship, i.e., proper livestock-handling techniques, can be instrumental in maximizing the effectiveness of a robotic or any other milk-harvesting system.

Robots will inevitably have a place in the future of the dairy industry. The challenges presented by the transition to this system, as with any transition, should be thoughtfully addressed early in the decision-making process. This process should include appropriate representation from all affected areas of the dairy, not just management. Taking a more robust approach may help expedite the process and result in a higher percentage of animals making the transition with minimal loss of performance.  end mark

Jim Lewis