Taking udders out of the hands of dairy farmers seems a bit odd. But robotic milking systems, no longer an anomaly, do just that.

Robots are located throughout the Northeast on dairy farms of all sizes. As the technology becomes more commonplace, the early innovators are being joined by those who now feel that robotic milking can help to change, for the better, their prospects of remaining successful as dairy farmers.

According to Mat Haan, Penn State Extension agent and dairy educator in Berks County, Pennsylvania, the state had 40 farms using robotic milking systems in 2015. Haan presented “A Survey of Robotic Milking Systems in PA” at the 2015 Penn State Dairy Nutrition Conference (see resource at end of article). “The robots give us more time to be with the cows as a whole, not only udders,” said Karen Hooper, who farms with her husband, Mike, at River Ridge Dairy just outside of Syracuse, New York. Having the robots do the milking “shifts our ability to do other things, and you don’t have to have those employees.”

How robots ease the load

The Hoopers cite plenty of other benefits to having their two Lely robots. The robots provide them with all the data they need to remotely monitor the cows, alerting them to possible health concerns sooner than they’d otherwise be able to identify them. The robots are consistent, unlike human milkers, who might not always follow proper procedures. And for the Hoopers, it’s allowed them to plan to dairy until retirement, even though there is no family interested in continuing the farm.

“Since there is no reliance on humans to milk the cows, great labor savings are realized and the risk of worker availability is greatly reduced,” said Whitney Davis, the vice president and dairy equipment sales manager of Finger Lakes Dairy Services, Inc. and the dealer for the Hoopers’ system.

Haan agrees that robots can allow flexibility for the farmer, while also providing real-time data to increase herd management capabilities. Pennsylvania dairy farmers who made the change to robots, which first appeared in the state in 2002, include: older farmers who can no longer keep up with milking demands; younger farmers who are beginning the management of a dairy; farmers who can’t find reliable labor; and those who want to dairy, but need flexibility in their daily schedule.

“Other than labor flexibility, the biggest advantage of robotic milking is the information the system provides to the producer that allows him or her to be a better manager,” Haan said.

But robots may not be for everyone.

“If they want more flexibility in their day, or want to use the data to be better managers, I will encourage them to look at it as an option,” Haan said about the robots. “If they think switching to robots will solve all their management problems or allow them to take an extended vacation, I caution against it.”

Charles Gardner, DVM, MBA, has experience with robots in his former position with Cargill Animal Nutrition and currently as an independent consultant. He is the dairy transition coordinator at the Center for Dairy Excellence.

“The change from hands-on milking to depending on a computer to tell the manager what is happening with the cows,” Dr. Gardner said, can be the most difficult aspect of robotic milking systems for many dairymen. “The farmer needs to be comfortable with computers and with high-tech equipment, [and willing to] let the cows learn and adjust to the system, without micro-managing when the cows get milked.”

Read more: Managing the Highs and Lows of the Dairy Market

Making robots work

Barns of any type can be retrofitted for robots. Tie stalls can be converted to free stall layouts, and robots can be added at one end. Robots can be housed in a separate facility, accessible to the cows through a barnyard. Bedded pack barns work well with robots, too.

No matter the barn design, producers do have to decide if they will utilize a free flow, or a guided flow, system. With a free flow system, the cows are free to meander at will in and out of the robot, to the stall areas or to the feed bunk. If the cow enters the robot excessively, it won’t provide feed or milk the cow. Any cows that haven’t visited the robot in a given time frame are herded in by hand to milk.

In a guided or force flow system, one-way gates direct cows to one area – robot, feed bunk, pasture, stall – depending on when they last milked. There are variations on this system, which can require that cows milk before being fed, or eat before being milked. A selection gate can divert cows not eligible to milk directly to another area, without allowing them into the robot at all.

The system will have some influence on facility design, Dr. Gardner said. A guided flow, “milk first” system can’t have a row of stalls along the feed alley, or the cows could go to the stalls and access feed without milking.

For pasture-based operations, lane ways and guided gates are typically needed to help sort the cows. When the cows out on pasture come in to be milked, guided gates can be programmed to lead them to fresh pasture when it is time to move on, and the herd can be rotationally grazed. Cows that enter the barn, but haven’t milked in a given time period, can be denied pasture access until they enter the robot.

Mike Hooper, Karen Hooper and their Finger Lakes Dairy Services team, including Whitney Davis, far right, with the robots at River Ridge Dairy.

Courtesy of Lely.

Robot nutrition

“With free flow systems, we depend on the cow being somewhat hungry to make her want to come to the robot for grain. With guided flow systems, much less grain can be fed at the robot, so that is where they may get only a pound or two at each visit,” Dr. Gardner said. In free flow systems, “the average cow gets roughly half of her total grains – about 10 or 11 pounds – at the robot, and the rest in the partial mixed ration (PMR), so-called because not all of the feed is in it, compared to a total mixed ration (TMR).”

So some farmers rely on the feed in the robot as a significant portion of the ration, while others use the robot feed as an enticement. Homegrown or purchased feed can be used at the robot.

“Most farms feed a pellet at the robot,” Haan said. “This is the incentive for the cow to come up for milking. As long as the pellet is of good quality and does not break down to pieces easily, and is consistent from one batch to the next, this usually works best. To save on cost, some farms will feed a ground corn/soybean meal at the robot.”

Gardner agrees that robots seem to work best if pelleted feeds are used, rather than farm-grown. He is aware of several farmers who tried not to use purchased pellets, but only one who has been able to consistently use his own feeds in the robots with good results.

Robots don’t require more grain. They simply divert some of the grain from the TMR to the robot ration. No matter whether a free or a guided flow system is selected, robot nutrition is designed to give “every cow exactly what they need. No more, no less,” Davis emphasized.

While pellets are more expensive than other forms of grain, the cows get a consistent nutritional reward from pellets when they go to milk, and cows will come voluntarily to be milked and produce more milk, Davis said. The pellet ration fed at the robot is programmed specifically for each cow, eliminating under- and over-feeding that occurs in the bunk.

Feeding pellets “is not a more expensive thing to do,” Davis said.

“It’s a different type of feeding program. You have to feed the cows through the robot in a free flow system,” Cargill dairy nutritionist Steve Halahan said. Halahan works with four farms that use robotics, including Mor-Dale Farms in Myerstown, Pennsylvania. “It’s not just as straight forward as feeding a bunk in a free stall or tie stall barn.”

At Mor-Dale Farms, Ralph and Crystal Moyer have four Lely Astronaut robotic milking systems, which serve the 250 milking cow dairy herd. The cows are fed 10 pounds of pelleted grain, on average, at the robot. This helps to balance their dietary needs and lures them into the robots to milk. While there are three ways to enter the holding pen for milking, and the cows can enter whenever they want to, the only way out is through the robots. Each pair of robots serves one-half of the new free stall, bedded-pack barn.

Cargill nutritionist Jason Moyer works with Joe Kooser, a dairy farmer in Western Pennsylvania who has two DeLaval robots, and also with another robotic milking herd, one with Lely robots. At the Kooser farm, the maximum amount of grain the cow receives via the robot is 6 pounds, he said, although he knows of other herds where top cows get 18 pounds of grain.

At the Kooser farm, the robotic milking system was implemented along with a herd expansion and a change from tie stall to free stall barns. This required a lot of management changes all at once. The herd has been milked by robot for three years successfully, but there were adjustments.

“Since this is a different and unique herd management concept, there is a transition period while the cows and people adjust,” Davis said. “Many of my customers tell me the cows learn more quickly than the people. You are managing equipment, not people, and the robots and cows are working 24/7.”

Milking

The robots identify the cows via electronic tags and can keep immense amounts of data about each cow. Not all systems have all data, and not all farmers concern themselves with all the reports available. If there is something irregular about a cow, data can be examined in depth.

“The amount of data is pretty incredible. If you’re really a numbers guy, I don’t know what more you could want,” Halahan said, calling the information “invaluable” from a nutritionist’s standpoint.

Robots can be programmed, allowing producers to adjust parameters individually for each cow. For example, fresh cows can be allowed to milk as often as they wish, feeding can be programmed at different levels for each cow, and milk from individual cows can be directed away from the bulk tank. Nutritionists can view data from off-site and make needed feed adjustments remotely.

Close-up of a Lely robotic milking system attaching to an udder.

Courtesy of Charles Gardner, DVM.

The robots weigh the cow, position the cow on the milking platform, scan the udder and brush, spray and prepare the teats for milking. The robotic milking arm unit then moves into place, and lasers guide the robot to attach properly. After the cow is fully milked, teats are sprayed with disinfectant, the unit detaches and cleans and prepares itself for the next cow.

Some robots can work fine with cows without milking all teats, so cows don’t have to be culled because of any issues in one or two quarters. Individual teat milking capabilities reduce over-milking concerns. Robots can refuse to milk cows whose udders aren’t full, or who have returned to be milked after too short a duration.

If teats are too close or abnormal, problems can arise. Breeding for udders that work best with robotic systems is a reality on some farms.

“We have to breed for the robot,” Karen Hooper said. “Good teat placement” is a priority, she said.

Haan’s 2014-2015 study of robotic milking on nine Pennsylvania farms, “PA Robotic Milking and Milk Quality Study,” found that problems that prevent robots from properly cleaning the cow prior to milking arise due to: hairy udders; teat placement issues; long hair on the tail switch; cow movement during placement of unit; and unit maintenance issues.

While over 95 percent of the teats were effectively cleaned by the robots, udder and lower leg hygiene, stall cleanliness and somatic cell count were found to be correlated.

The robots are cleaned throughout the day, as most, if not all, have automatic cleaning cycles. Changing filters and other tasks are required to maintain sanitation, and disinfection on a regular schedule is needed.

Routine scheduled maintenance is also required, typically several times per year. Some farmers take on these duties themselves; others have dealers provide the service.

System monitoring

“One needs to be willing and able to learn and use computerized technology, especially if not doing so already, and also to be willing to respond to the machine when it alerts to an issue,” Davis said. “It doesn’t happen often but it does happen.”

Broken or compromised robots can’t milk cows, or can’t do so well. If something does go wrong, the robots send out an alert. While the situation may be minor, and require an adjustment, other issues require repair, parts and service.

“Make sure they service it,” and they carry the parts, Moyer advised.

Some service providers may offer monitoring, where they, too, receive alerts from the robots and can assist the farmer in real-time with any issues. The availability and cost of parts, as well as the labor for repairs, is also an important consideration when selecting a robotic milking system.

It’s important that producers consider whether the local dealer fully understands and participates in robotic herd management, Davis said, and that they provide the routine maintenance required if the farmer is not inclined to do so.

“Service is a key issue, so the producer should ask how much experience that particular dealer has, and ask for references,” before purchasing their equipment, Gardner said.

Cow benefits

“Robotic milking is not a magic bullet and does not replace good animal husbandry; however, robots provide the herd manager the time, tools and systems to make a good cow manager even better, and get better results,” Davis said.

Robots also seem to keep the cows calm and content, and help increase productivity. The consistent experience of being milked by the robot, as well as having the PMR tailored to their needs, is beneficial to cow health.

Hooper credits the robots with helping create an environment where the cows have no reason to be scared or fearful. Her cows are extremely relaxed, don’t fear the presence of humans and spend a lot of time ruminating.

“They pretty much run their own community,” Hooper said of her cows.

Cows that can decide for themselves when to milk, and have more control over their natural desires for rest, rumination and feeding, are less stressed. Cows, like humans, are happier when doing things on their own schedule.

Read more: Robotic Milking For More Quality Time


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