Farming Magazine - June, 2013

FEATURES

Robotic Milking on the Rise

By Tina Wright


Most farmers report better milk production and lower somatic cell counts with robotic milking.
Photo by Yeko Photo Studio/Shutterstock.com.

If you had missed the New York Farm Show in Syracuse, N.Y., for a few years, you might have suspected time travel upon viewing the number of robotic milking demonstrations in 2013. The Lely brand Astronaut series of robotic milking systems has dominated upstate New York with a Sputnik-like lead, but other dairy equipment companies are blasting off their own automatic milking systems. DeLaval and BouMatic robotic milking machines have also been in orbit for a while. In North America, Insentec is selling a robotic system called Galaxy Astrea, and GEA Farm Technologies has just launched its MIone system.

In fact, automation seems to be sneaking up all over the place, with feed pushers that keep TMR constantly in front of cows and automatic calf feeding systems that combine the old technology of nipple milk feeding with the new technology of robotic feeding controlled by software programs.

Dairy farms of all sizes have joined the robotic milking club. In fact, smaller dairies with fewer than 100 cows were early adopters of the technology, and now larger farms are utilizing robotic milking.

Whitney Davis is vice president of dairy equipment sales at Finger Lakes Dairy Services (FLDS). He describes the variety of dairy farms that are using Lely Astronaut units: "It's all over the board. We have small, medium and large herds. I think in the future there will be more large herds."

FLDS has a branch in western New York and another in the northern Tug Hill Plateau in addition to its central New York base in Seneca Falls. Davis says they service several herds with around 55 cows using one robotic milker. FLDS has more than a dozen customers in the 100 to 300-cow range, a few herds milking around 400 cows, and one herd with 750 cows.

Why robotics?

Davis identifies labor concerns as the big reason for the rise in automatic milking. "Number one on the list by far with most of the users, it's labor. I would say the smaller guys, even though labor's a consideration, it probably ranks even with quality of life. Some of the smaller guys were milking their own cows, and it frees them up from that daily chore. With larger farms it's by far labor." He cites the uncertainty over the availability of immigrant labor for dairy farming as a big motivation.



Chuck Deichmann of Willow Creek Farm milks 120 cows on an organic farm in southwestern New York.
Photos by Tina Wright unless otherwise noted.

Typically, cows can enter the milking unit whenever they like if the computer reading their transponder neck collars senses that there has been enough time since the last milking. A fresh cow will be allowed more milkings per day than a late-lactation cow giving less milk. While new heifers need some training to learn the ropes, most farmers report that they do not have to round up many stragglers who have missed their milking times.

Small herd

Chuck Deichmann milks 120 cows at his Willow Creek Farm in Belmont, N.Y. He is the rare "robot man" who is also an organic dairy farmer and must fit grazing into the cows' daily routine. "Grazing is one of the toughest challenges, but it's very doable," he says. "What we found is you really want to have fresh grass for the cows to go to at least every 24 hours; ideally, every 12 hours would be perfect."

These cows are on what Deichmann calls a "50 percent milk access criteria." An automatic gate system will not let a cow leave the barn if it's getting close to her milking time. "The idea is to get the cows out to pasture as quickly as you can, because when they start coming back, they come back in smaller groups. I can't stress enough the importance of having good grass out there. That's their encouragement to get out there."

A farmer needs a good comfort level with computers before switching to robotic milking. Deichmann encourages newbies to visit farms with automated systems and ask questions. He has advised many interested people. "I had one woman who came out here and spent three days in my robot room just observing. I told her, 'Get into the T4C software system and explore.' She had tons of questions. They put their own robot in that fall, and it worked out quite well for her to have that experience."

Family time, seeing the kids play soccer and perform music, was a big factor in Chuck and Julia Deichmann's decision to "go robotic" with their milking system.

Medium herd

Bruce Hatfield is in an LLC partnership with his wife, Marcia, and son, Chris, in Scipio Center in central New York. They are milking around 215 cows and plan to milk 230 to 240 cows, which will maximize their barn capacity and the capacity of their four robotic units.

Previously, they milked 85 cows in a parlor. They wanted to expand their herd, but without adding labor, and they felt that automatic milking was the solution.



At Willow Creek Farm, milk from the robotic milking unit can flow through the system to a storage tank, or it can automatically be routed into containers.

Automatic milking software gives farmers information on milk production for every cow, and the milking unit even tests conductivity of the milk from every quarter, an indicator of milk quality that can detect mastitis. The Hatfields had Dairy One, the cooperative that had tested their milk for years as DHIA, come in and calibrate their equipment to test milk for butterfat and protein. The numbers provided by the Lely robots are very close to the numbers from "official" milk testing, and they are satisfied that recalibration every six months will be sufficient.

Bruce Hatfield emphasizes the need for a tasty grain to lure the cow into the automated milk unit. Without it, some cows won't budge. He says, "A cow will stand out in the holding area, milk just dripping from her udder, but she won't go to the robot unless grain is provided."

Large herd

Dale Hemminger is the chief owner-operator of Hemdale Farms in Seneca Castle, N.Y. Currently they're milking 750 cows on the farm. He says, "Robots give us the opportunity to manage cows as individuals, which we really enjoy. Not every management style would line up with robots as well."



At Hemdale Farms, the Lely automatic milking machine attaches teat cups to a cow's udder.

Hemdale Farms put in four Lely units in 2007 as a trial run in one of their barns. Hemminger says, "We liked them so well that two years later we expanded it to 13 robots and shut the parlor down.

"The robot advantage is the ability to grow incrementally with robots as needed, which is what we did in '07 and then again in '09 and 2010. The labor savings with robots is very real. We believe for each hour of robot-related work, it would have taken three to four hours of parlor labor."

Learning curves



Willow Creek Farm sign.

Dairy farms with robotic milking systems must adjust their barn cleaning and animal handling routines. Like the cows themselves, farmers need to observe their cattle and learn to go with the flow.

Most farmers report better milk production and lower somatic cell counts with robotic milking, and most of these farms either clip or singe udders to help keep milk clean and aid teat cup sensors in locating teats when attaching for milking. New heifers need some gentle teaching to get with the program.

While activity monitors for individual cows are available to dairy farmers without robotics, a large number of those who are using automated milking systems report that heat detection is a lot better with this feature. You have to compensate if you aren't watching cows all day and night, and this system does it for you.

Deichmann estimated that his first unit cost about $175,000, and the second cost less because much of the infrastructure was in place. Hemminger estimated the robotic units and milk house on their large dairy cost over $2 million. This technology is expensive, but none of these dairy producers complained about the cost.

The author is a freelance contributor based near Ithaca, N.Y., specializing in dairy and organics, but dabbling in all things agricultural. Comment or question? Visit www.farmingforumsite.com and join in the discussions.