When designing a new or retrofit barn for automation, it is essential to give much thought to cow comfort, as well as the flow of cows and people in the barn. During the course of a cow’s lactation, she will receive about nine cow touches (breedings, vaccinations, health checks, etc). These cow touches are ongoing routine tasks that require significant forethought regarding how they will be executed. To ensure your barn layout is optimized for cow traffic and efficient labor workflow, here are some fundamental considerations to help evaluate robot barn design.
Are there sufficient distances at the exit/entrance of the robot?
First and foremost, cow flow throughout the barn and especially in front of a robot are key to ensuring every cow is visiting the robot. Because cows produce best when operating on their own “natural biorhythm,” it is essential to provide a free-flow cow traffic system that mimics that rhythm. Any added obstacles a cow must navigate to get to the robot will only discourage visits from certain animals, typically more timid cows.
A big component of that comfort is giving them plenty of room. A good rule of thumb is a minimum space of 15 feet from the robot to the first obstacle in front of the robot. This will allow even a timid, low-ranking cow the opportunity to enjoy her robot experience.
In addition, consider robot placement for maintenance needs as well.
Will there be clean and safe access to the robot room?
Walking through a manure-filled cow alley on your way into the robot room is strongly discouraged. Keeping a clean robot room is important for maintaining a healthy environment for desirable milk quality. Installing boot washers by all doors leading into or out of a robot room is a great way to help maintain a clean robot room.
What manure and stall management (scraping, slats, etc.) plans are in place?
Consider the labor needed to support manure and stall management while you’re in the barn design phase. Keeping alleys and cross alleys clean, as well as maintaining clean and dry beds, will certainly go a long way toward maintaining a healthy herd with high milk quality standards.
Can you group cows without disrupting social hierarchy?
The best results in labor and milk production are achieved on farms where cows remain in the same social group throughout their complete lactation. Typically, a high percentage of farms keep cows in the same group during their lactation period to promote herd comfort and maintain healthy hierarchy. This grouping strategy is supported by having ample space around the milking robots, allowing the cow being milked to remain visible and part of the herd.
How will you move cows into and out of pens or groups?
Safe and efficient cow flow is a must when considering your barn layout. This may mean utilizing gates, cow alleys, cross alleys, etc. Think about how a cow will enter a group from the calving area and then how she will be moved into the dry cow pen once lactation is complete. This can save time later and help prevent stress for both the cows and people.
How will you find and treat cows?
Make sure it is easy for a cow to enter a separation pen from the robot when a cow needs to be treated. Access to feed and water is always a good thing once the cow is in a separation pen. Once the cow is treated, make sure it is a one-person job to return the cow to the general population with as little disruption to other cows as possible. In the event an overnight stay is needed, give careful consideration to how cow flow will take place from the separation pen to the milking robot and back.
The addition of location monitoring systems, while adding cost, can significantly reduce the time necessary to fetch cows. Rather than walking the barn and manually checking tags to locate a cow needing attention, a farmer is able to travel directly to the affected cow and deliver prompt treatment, saving time, money and increasing the well-being of the cow.
Are there plenty of water troughs?
Installing water troughs along the route cows use to and from the robot is always a good decision. Easy access with plenty of space around the water trough will encourage the cows to drink as much as they please while not disrupting the path of other cows coming and going to the milking robot.
Where do you want the footbath positioned?
Cows with healthy hooves feel good and will be more productive. Most footbaths are installed away from the robots, and many choose to install them in a crosswalk opposite of where the robots are installed. This will lead to limited disturbance around the robot when it is time to utilize the footbath. However, footbaths can be installed in various places in the barn, depending on your barn layout.
What does the budget allow for?
New construction on a greensite will always require the greatest financial commitment. It does, however, allow for the greatest degree of freedom when planning barn flow, cow comfort and labor considerations. Retrofitting an existing barn requires consideration beyond robot placement. While introducing automation, a farmer may also want to reposition ventilation systems, redo their stalls or adjust feeding regimens. All of these must be considered in the total cost of the retrofit.
How to begin?
New construction or major retrofits are decisions a typical farmer only makes twice in their career, on average. We highly recommend that producers tour as many robot dairies as they can during the planning process. It does not matter which brand of automated milking system a barn uses, the touring will provide insight on the pros and cons of different designs and assist you in determining the best fit for you and your cows.
Additionally, establishing a relationship with a trusted equipment provider or distributor is critical to the process of moving to automation. Your equipment dealer will be an integral part of your operation, as they provide installation, ongoing service, maintenance and training, as well as potentially offering advisers to help interpret data from the robots and optimize your dairy’s performance.