When I talk with producers who installed automated milking systems, most say the first three days are the worst, the first three weeks are hard, and things are better within three months. By the sixth to ninth month, they say the automated milking system is better than the previous milking system, as both cows and people have adjusted to the major lifestyle change.

Witt augusta
Dairy Specialist / Vita Plus

Each startup can be broken into five components (the five P's): pre-startup, people, pace, pellets/partially mixed ration (PMR) and post-startup. Focusing on the five P's can minimize stress and help the farm team and cows more easily adapt to an automated milking system.

1. Pre-startup

Invest the time to plan for and manage the start-up process and its multitude of tasks. Some tasks must be completed prior to startup.

Make decisions on culling and possible early dry-offs. Select cows with udders that allow for quick milking unit attachment (square teats, similar teat lengths and balanced udders). Some producers choose an early dry-off for late-lactation cows. However, producers I work with have commented that cows dried off in the automated milking system remember the system and transition back into it much more easily.

After determining which cows will enter the automated milking system, put on the collars or tags early. Giving the system a few weeks to build a baseline of data (eating time, rumination, etc.) will help you identify challenged cows earlier in the start-up process. This will also ensure all cows are in the system prior to their first real visits to the robot.


Strategize cow groupings. In most robotic milking facilities, a cow will be in the same pen during her whole lactation. Without proper planning, pens can have wide ranges in days in milk (DIM). Cows are creatures of habit; if you must move a cow post-startup to redistribute herd days in milk (DIM), it is best if she can access the robot from the same direction as the previous pen.

If possible, pre-train cows on robots to help them recognize the equipment and how to enter and exit. Push cows through the robot two to four times, offering feed but not milking them. Provide a small amount of feed (0.5 pound per visit with a maximum of 4 to 6 pounds a day) so they recognize the feed when they start milking.

Have lime or sand on hand to keep cows from slipping as they go through the robots. If the first trip through the robot is not ideal, try getting the cow right back into it to create a much more positive experience for her to remember. Used robots can make great training robots; cows should move through the training robots in the exact same way they will move through the milking robots.

If you currently milk in a parlor and your new system will include finger gates, consider installing finger gates at the parlor exit so cows understand they can get through them. It will be one less thing they have to adjust to when they start in the robots.

Finally, singe hair on the whole udder, especially the foreudder. Trim cow tails, especially if the unit has brushes, to keep tails from wrapping around the brush. This also prevents the robot from misreading the tail as a teat.

2. People

Pre-startup communication with key team members is essential. Everyone’s job and schedule will change. Plan for chores such as bedding, hoof trimming and footbaths. Update employee job descriptions, health protocols and other farm processes. The more planning you can do ahead of time, the smoother the process will go.

You need a team of people to support you and your farm during this lifestyle change. Ask for help from others for at least the first four to five days of the startup. Enlist people who are calm, quiet and gentle cow handlers, especially during this period of elevated stress. Cows recognize people, so familiar people are even better.

Put together a four- to five-day schedule that is broken into eight-hour shifts. Add wash times to the schedule and use these for breaks and shift changes. Assign two good cow handlers in each pen and one person in the robot room to map and attach units. Typically, the robot room is dark and quiet with minimal traffic flow. Maintain that environment during startup.

Owners and managers may want to be in the barn 24-7, but it’s crucial they rest. They need energy to continue working after the extra help has left.

3. Pace

Ask your dealer for the recommended number of cows per robot during the startup process. The first milkings take 10 to 15 minutes per cow as udders are mapped or learned. If you have 60 cows per robot, it will take roughly 12 hours to get the entire pen milked, compromising visit times in the first few days and adding stress and exhaustion for the people involved.

Automated milking system startups can occur in different ways. One option is a modified or gradual startup where new cows are continually added to the automated milking system through the course of two to four weeks. The advantage is that the herd is slowly introduced to the robots and you have a backup plan if the robots have mechanical or technical issues.

Logistics may require a farm to move all cows to the robots at once. In this case, milk at least half the herd through the parlor the morning of startup. The remaining cows should be the first to go through the robot. Define a strategy to sort or identify those animals so you know who needs milking priority.

An abundance of available sturdy gates is crucial. Pens will need to be segmented to keep cows flowing through the robots during startup. When segmenting pens, do not limit access to feed or water.

4. Pellet and PMR

Lean on your nutritionist to guide you through ration changes. Introducing pellets a few days prior to startup (by pre-training in the robot or top-dressing the total mixed ration) helps cows recognize the taste and hopefully drives them to want more. Feed that goes through the robot must be palatable, fresh and support a healthy rumen environment.

Calibrate the robot’s concentrate dispenser prior to and shortly after startup to ensure it delivers the correct amount of feed. This is especially crucial when making PMR energy density changes.

Cows undergo many changes during startup, and dry matter intakes (DMI) will likely be off. In free-flow systems, a typical goal is to get to a balance of 80% to 85% of total dietary energy coming from the PMR and 15% to 20% coming from the pellet within four to five days post-startup.

University of Guelph research shows cows prefer to eat at dusk and dawn. Use these natural tendencies to set your feeding and push-up times during the robot startup. This research also shows cows like to rest between midnight and 3 a.m., making this an ideal time for a wash cycle and shift change.

5. Post-startup

Establish a fetching plan so cows are fetched at a different time each day. If you fetch at the same time every day, cows will recognize and wait for you like they would for barn or parlor milkings. Don’t train them into that mindset.

Keep the robot area and commitment pen as uncrowded as possible so timid cows are more apt to go through the robot. Do not place PMR or water near this area to keep cow traffic at a minimum.

Work with your nutritionist to fine-tune post-startup feed tables and review dispensing rate and eating time. If cows are allowed a lot of feed and cannot consume it during their box time, the feed sits in the bowl and the next cow gets that plus her own allotment of feed.

Encourage cows to consume the PMR with fresh feed delivery and push-ups. Ensure robotic feed pushers push feed close enough for cows to reach. Also evaluate how many manual push-ups are needed after fresh PMR is dropped.

Finally, make gradual changes to fine-tune the system post-startup. You cannot identify what did or did not work if you make multiple changes at once.

Switching to an automated milking system is a huge transition for both cows and people. Mitigating as many stressors as possible will pay dividends. Careful planning, effective communication and protocols aligned with natural cow behavior will help everyone adapt to the new lifestyle.