by Sally Colby

When Lely introduced the first robotic milking system in Holland in 1992, the focus was on proving the technology had potential for long-term solutions. As more farmers adopted the technology, the focus switched to refining the design and increasing reliability. Today, the main focus is on the cow.

Adam Griffin, senior farm management support for Lely North America, says the robotic trend will continue despite volatile milk prices. “While milk price can have a negative impact on uptake, there are positive aspects,” he said. “For herds where the milking system is coming to the end of its lifespan, capital investments will be made either way.” Griffin says difficulty in finding and keeping good labor and increased wages are another factor in robotic adoption, as well as how the next generation wants to manage the dairy.

Mat Haan, Penn State University extension educator, estimates that about 550 U.S. farms are currently using robotic milking systems (RMS), and predicts the number will grow. “A lot of farmers switch to robots to reduce farm labor costs,” he said. “Some farms are doing well with labor reduction; other farms have not seen the same return on investment.” Labor availability is a major consideration for farmers considering RMS because labor is becoming more costly and difficult to find.

Part of the success of an RMS is dependent on cows coming to the robot consistently, which is enhanced by providing a highly palatable feed concentrate at milking. While most farms feed pellets at milking, some offer textured feed or ground corn/soybean meal. Haan says balancing the ration pellets with the TMR can be challenging.

Haan says dairy farms that are successfully using RMS have good management skills and the right cows. The better farms maintain high herd averages and don’t tolerate cows that consistently ‘fail’ – cows that should be milked but aren’t entering the system or milking is incomplete due to improper teat cup attachment.

Jim Salfer, University of Minnesota dairy educator, discusses factors that affect profitability with RMS. “If you’re comparing the alternative milking system to a lower-cost parlor you’re putting in an existing barn, even with labor, the lower cost parlor is more profitable,” he said. “If you’re building a brand-new 120 system with a double-8 parlor, even with moderate technology, the robot is going to win because you’re saving labor and you’re also going to get higher milk production. Most of the people milking 120 cows are not going to milk three times a day.”

Another option is a select robot system in which cows are still milked in a conventional parlor as a new RMS is installed next to it or at another farm site. “When they expand (the operation), they don’t shut down their parlor, they expand and build a new robotic system,” said Salfer, adding that quite a few dairies are doing this. “It makes the robot very efficient – you’re going to put the good robot cows that adapt well on the robot system, and any fetch cows, unusually uddered cows and slow-milking cows never see the robot.” Salfer predicts more select systems will be installed in the future.

Salfer explains that consistent production is essential for steady net return. “Hitting targets for efficiency is important with robots,” he said. “The better farms with a 30,000 pound herd average get more attaches consistently. More attaches means more milk per robot.” Salfer added that the best farms don’t keep cows that consistently fail in a robotic system. He also said start-ups with robotic systems won’t get high production, and that it takes management skills and time for the herd to adjust. However, as robots become more efficient with faster attachments and better cameras, overall production improves.

Several factors affect milk production when cows are switched to a robotic system, including the ‘robot effect’. “That’s the effect of cows not leaving the pen 24 hours a day; access to feed, water and beds continuously,” said Salfer, adding that this applies to box robots and not rotary robots. “The milking frequency effect – how many times a day am I going to milk? With more than 2x, you’re going to have an increase in production. It’s also ‘am I getting the right cows milked at the right time?’ Are the fresh cows milked more frequently than later lactation cows?’”

Fresh cow management is especially important in an RMS. “We spend a lot of time looking at the computer, but we need to be watching cows,” said Salfer. “It’s important to look at rumination and manure daily. If palatability of the PMR (partial mixed ration) drops because we’re feeding butyric haylage, those cows could be eating little PMR and a lot of pellets. That can throw those cows off, and may have an effect on fat test.” Salfer says some farms provide multiple feeds through the robot box, which allows more flexibility in targeting nutrient requirements.

Salfer says compared to older cows, first lactation cows get off to a slow start in an RMS, but once cows are adjusted to robots, first lactation cows’ milking frequency exceeds that of older cows. Research has shown that pre-training heifers decreases fetching after calving. Salfer says some farms have built training stalls in close-up pens to help heifers learn to use the system. “It’s a stall that looks like a robot,” he said. “They feed some pellets and chase the cows through thinking it will get them used to the robot and what it’s like; the noises and the feed.”

Health reports from activity monitoring in any dairy system are helpful in troubleshooting and preventing problems, and especially useful in RMS. “Milk yield and rumination time begins to drop before DAs,” said Salfer, noting Canadian research showing that producers changed their health management strategy and found that robotic system software helped with earlier disease detection.

Sire selection is a factor in successful robotic systems, and producers can take advantage of sire summaries that include robotic traits such as milking speed and teat placement. “There’s a reasonably high heritability on voluntary milking,” said Salfer. “It isn’t just milking speed and teat placement – how consistently do these animals come to the robot?”

As is the case with any milking system, producers have to accept the imperfections of robots. “They’re getting a lot better, but marginal cow prepping and dipping can be a challenge,” said Salfer. “Some cows don’t read the book and behave as you’d like.” Lopsided udders can result in incomplete teat prep and attachment problems in an RMS, but undesirable udders can be an issue with nearly any system.

Salfer says that overall, the milking process fits well with robotic technology, and most current users are satisfied with their decision. “Smaller dairies can expand without hiring labor, producers have a more flexible schedule,” said Salfer. “You really do have to make the cash flow work, and it requires good management.”