After 35 years of milking cows in a traditional parlor at Nea-Tocht Farm in Ferrisburgh, Vermont, the Vander Wey family joined the growing number of dairies that are choosing to automate the milking process on their farms. Installing robotic milking machines has saved labor and money and significantly improved herd health, says Sid Vander Wey.
The decision to install the robots came when operation of the farm was beginning to transition to the next generation of the family. Labor costs were high, and the sustainability of the operation was in question. “We wanted to keep our herd size, but reduce labor and find technology that could help improve our herd,” Vander Wey says. After seeing an article about robotic milkers, he learned about the machines from other farmers and salespeople and ultimately purchased five units – the Astronaut model made by Lely – three years ago. Today they are milking 220 cows with the robots.
The machines resemble a small stall with gates on each end. The cows decide when they are ready to be milked and make their way into the machine. The gate closes behind the cow, and feed is dispensed in front of her. A robotic arm swings under her udder, cleans the teats, aligns the teat cups, and milks the cow. The milk is rapidly cooled and piped directly into the bulk tank. When done, the front gate opens, the cow leaves the machine, and the machine self-cleans in preparation for the next animal. The cows learned to use the machines within a few weeks, notes Vander Wey.
Each cow has a transponder on her collar so the robot can identify her on her way into the machine. The information gathered during each milking – testing milk from each quarter separately for conductivity, color, temperature, fat, protein and lactose, and measuring quantity – is stored for the farmer to refer to. The robot also counts how many times a day the cow is milked, weighs the animal and can detect heat. The farmer can customize the feed ration for each individual cow, based on her size and where she is in her lactation.
The improvement in herd health since installing the machines has been dramatic. Incidents of mastitis have declined, and somatic cell counts typically run less than 100,000. “We see warning signs of mastitis earlier, and so we can treat it earlier,” Vander Wey explains.
Having each animal’s grain ration carefully monitored and measured, something that can’t be done easily in a parlor system, has also helped with herd health, says Vander Wey. Being able to feed less at freshening helps keep the cows from getting sick as they come into milk, and feeding less to dry cows helps prevent them from becoming overweight, which can cause birthing problems. The improvement in herd health has resulted in the farm keeping animals in the herd about two years longer than before, says Vander Wey.
The cost savings from using the robots are also notable, he says. The farm is feeding about 7 fewer pounds of grain per animal per day, thanks to the prescribed feeding system. In addition, the cows are producing on average 20 pounds more milk each day, in part because they’re choosing their own milking schedule and going into the machine an average of 3.7 times a day, rather than the twice-per-day milkings the farm was doing before installing the robots. The ability to quickly detect milk with high somatic cell counts and divert it from the bulk tank means the farm can sell the cleanest milk possible and earn premiums for doing so.
The savings on labor costs are huge. Vander Wey says, “We paid six people to milk our cows before, and now we’re doing it with one.” The machines need regular maintenance, but the time spent on that is no more than with a regular parlor.
As for the cows themselves, Vander Wey says they’re more social and calmer since switching over to the robotic milking system. “They’re able to be on their own schedule and so aren’t stressed from being pushed into the parlor twice a day.”
Having robotic milkers doesn’t mean that a farmer can just leave a herd to take care of itself, emphasizes dairyman Mike Borden, who installed two robotic milkers on his dairy in Easton, New York, in November 2013. “You can’t just throw the cows in the barn and walk away,” he says.
Not having to handle the cows for every milking frees up the farmer to be more meticulous about management. He says, “You have time to be a better farmer, time to slow down and pay more attention to the cows.” Even though he doesn’t necessarily have his hands on each animal every day, Borden says he has far more information about each cow and is better able to take care of their individual needs.
Vander Wey also invested in other robotic devices from Lely: alley scrapers, a feed pusher and back brushes. The alley scrapers clean the barn so well that the farm is using half as much sawdust for bedding material as in the past, and the animals stay cleaner and healthier. There’s been a notable reduction in flies as well, he says. The feed pusher slides up and down the feed bunk, pushing fodder up to where the cows can reach it, reducing waste and labor. As for the brushes, the cows love them, of course.
Vander Wey’s experience is typical, says Paul Godin of Lely Center Vermont, who has supplied Lely robotic equipment to 50 dairy farms and has sold a total of 57 milking robots in Vermont and eastern New York. “Farms are seeing 20 percent increases in production with the robots,” he notes. The job of milking cows traditionally has the highest turnover rate because it is so physically demanding and monotonous, he says, but having robots reduces the inconsistencies of human milkers, which improves milk quality and production.
The robot unit itself costs about $130,000, but with the additional infrastructure – electricity, water, water heater, collection tanks, air system for pneumatics, and the computer “brains” of the system – the cost tops out at slightly more than $200,000. Additional units can connect with the infrastructure from the first machine, so the cost is less. Unlike a parlor system, the units hold their value and can be resold, which makes financing easier, says Godin.
Such a big investment requires a lot of research and planning. Borden says, “We spent years traveling around to farms, asking questions and looking at designs before we even started to design our setup.” With the help of a financial planner, he ran through many possible scenarios for how to best replace his 40-year-old parlor. He ultimately decided that the robotic milkers offered the greatest possibility for long-term sustainability, and the up-front cost was relatively similar to that of a traditional parlor system, particularly when labor costs were factored in.
Operating costs run between $3,000 and $5,000 annually per unit for consumable and replaceable parts like filters, teat liners and brushes, explains Godin. Regular maintenance is straightforward and can be completed by the farmer. If issues arise with the computer system that runs the machines, Godin says that service personnel can log in to the computer remotely and diagnose and often fix problems.
American farms with Lely units range from those with one unit to some with 20, he says, with 60 cows being the minimum number to make the investment worthwhile. Cows need to be in a free-stall barn in order to access the robots. Some organic dairies have integrated the robotic milkers into their farms with automated gates that identify each cow and give her access to the pasture and the milkers.
For many farms, installing a robotic milking system is a way of engaging the next generation of a family operation and helping ensure the long-term viability of the dairy, says Godin. “They’re bringing farms back to life, and bringing smart, young people back to the farms. The robots bring a social flexibility to the job that is priceless; farmers with young families can participate in family events and go to their kids’ soccer games like they never could in the past.” Older dairy farmers, some who never used a computer before, are also re-engaging with dairying thanks to the robots, because of the system’s ease of use, he adds.