by George Looby

Earlier this autumn, the Animal Science Department of the College of Agriculture, Health and Human Resources at the University of Connecticut held a ceremony dedicating the installation of a robotic milking system in the Kellogg Dairy Center, the home for the university’s dairy herd. On Oct. 26, a conference was held to discuss the impact a robotic milking system (RMS) might have on a New England dairy farm.

As is often true with any new technology, at the onset there are probably more questions than answers. RMSs have considerable acceptance in overseas markets in locations such as New Zealand and the Scandinavian countries. In the U.S. there seems to have been a greater movement towards rotary units, but if the economics associated with robotics go in the right direction that trend may change.

Ben Freund from the Freund Farm in North Canaan, CT, offered a producer’s view of RMSs. He stressed that above all they are not magic – they are tools, tools that are costly and must be used properly to justify the investment. Labor costs are redirected, going to areas that have been traditionally underfunded, such as heat detection and sick cow care. Of considerable importance is the freedom given the cows at times when they are not being milked; the only periods of confinement are when they are in the holding area and when they are in the milking stall. It is Freund’s view that two generations get the most out of this technology – the one just past and the one coming down the road, the one with a high comfort level with the technology involved.

Jack Rodenburg, who operates as Dairylogix in Woodstock, ON, Canada, spoke on feeding the robotic milking herd. In this system the cows are rewarded for adapting to a new routine with feed. The cow gets feed for working her way through the holding area into the milking stall. Once milking is completed she is released to rejoin the herd. If she is not programmed to be milked the next time she enters the milking stall, she is gently, mechanically ushered out without a reward.

The transition to a robotic system will necessitate some changes to existing programs, especially on the feeding end. One suggestion in establishing a feeding program is to balance the ration at 17 pounds of milk below the group average as a partial mixed ration.

There are new feeding opportunities with robotic milking. These include systems that record daily milk production, milk composition, body weight, concentrate consumption and rumen activity. You can feed cows as individuals and they are capable of utilizing several types of liquid and concentrate supplements based on production and stage of lactation. In the transition period between the current milking system and the introduction to RMS, it is important to formulate the partial mixed ration and begin feeding it two weeks before starting the robotic system.

Two basic management styles are employed in working the cows through the milking stall, the so-called free style and the guided style. The free style allows cows ready access to the milking stall while the guided system brings groups of animals to the milking stall. The free traffic system allows for a higher degree of cow comfort.

Maintaining good hoof health is critical to any successful program so working closely with your hoof trimmer and veterinarian should do much to ensure that area is well managed.

Matt Hann, dairy Extension educator from Penn State, discussed maintaining milk quality in the robotic milking herd. One of the apparent drawbacks to the robotic herd is that there is little or no human oversight during the milking process, including teat preparation prior to milking and teat dipping once milking is completed. There are both benefits and challenges to milking with robots. Among the benefits cited is a consistent milking routine as well as regular monitoring and data and quarter milking.

Among the challenges are irregular milking intervals and not observing cows on a regular basis (including no visual inspection of teat cleanliness). It is estimated that 80 – 85 percent of teat cleanings were technically successful, which bears testimony to the efficiency of the human eye. Among the factors contributing to poor cleaning were the behavior of the cow, udder and teat structure, udder hair, mechanical failure and unknown factors. In one trial 18 percent of teats were not covered with teat disinfecting spray after milking at all. There are some factors over which the system has very little or no control, and that includes teat placement and the inclination of a cow to move when the units are being placed.

From the Iowa State University Extension Service came Dr. Larry Tranel, dairy field specialist for NE/SE Iowa, who took a critical look at the numbers associated with robotic systems in the area he covers. Tranel stated that labor is the number one reason that producers go robotic. In the herds under his watch there was a 75 percent decrease in total milking labor and there were 33 percent more cows milked. Among those operators surveyed, the reasons cited for installing a RMS were labor availability, labor flexibility and quality of life. Other reasons included the next generation, education, milk production, cow management and the modernization of facilities.

Robotic systems are more expensive compared to other systems now in use but projected savings are dependent on labor savings, a projected increase in production per cow and an increase in the number of cows that can be milked in the system.

Dr. Sam Comstock of the Holstein Association of America addressed the issue of genetic selection and breeding goals for robotic milking herds. Some of the traits considered highly desirable in more conventional milking systems may be somewhat less desirable in a RMS. Temperament may become a more important trait; the timid, reclusive animals will probably be less inclined to make a beeline for the holding pen as her milking time approaches. The slow milker does not fit well into the system. Healthy hooves and legs are critical to a smooth running operation. The cow with a compromised gait can do nothing but hold up the entire flow if her problems are not addressed.

The cow with a good square, tucked-up udder and evenly spaced teats of good size should do well in a RMS. Over many years those involved in cattle genetics have worked diligently to bring about these changes. Sensors are found everywhere and can be of great value in detecting a variety of traits that may be of value in a robotic system. On the flipside, there are detected traits that are completely undesirable. As the selection process becomes increasingly sophisticated, some of the newer traits identified will assume a more significant role in cattle selection while others may simply drift along.

Rodenburg ended the conference with ideas on barn designs for robotic milkers. Rodenburg feels that RMSs can work in almost any free stall or bedding pack barn with necessary modifications, but when considering the installation of expensive units it is best to have as many alternatives available as possible. The major considerations for any building should be cow comfort, labor efficiency, cost and value of the capital invested and the flexibility of the layout for future expansion.

A question and answer period followed the formal presentations, after which everyone had the opportunity to tour the new robotic system in use at the Kellogg Center.