It’s been a decade since robotic milking systems were first installed in the United States. Since then, the units, also known as automatic milking systems, or AMS, have become firmly entrenched in the dairy industry.

For some, the decision to hire robots to milk their cows is labor-based. For others, lifestyle is the key consideration. Whatever the reason, interest in these technological tools continues to grow.

Here’s why this technology is part of the dairy landscape.

Labor considerations

Labor cost, labor availability, labor retention, as well as labor training, are some of the major issues surrounding the move to robotics, says Peter Langebeeke, president of Lely USA.

Anecdotal evidence and actual research results both indicate that AMS systems require less labor. For example, a study in the August 2007Journal of Dairy Science shows a 29 percent reduction in labor needs by 62 Dutch dairies with AMS units. 

This finding is often corroborated on-farm. Some AMS users report a hired labor savings of three to four minutes per cow per day.

About a year ago, the 100-cow herd at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station in Hickory Corners, Mich., moved from a conventional free-stall (where cows were milked 3X) to a new free-stall that features two AMS units and access to pasture.

“After spending years trying to make cows do what I wanted them to do, it’s more fun to use cow motivation to get them to do what they want to do,” says Rob Ashley, dairy manager at the Kellogg facility. “It’s also much less work.”

There is a caveat, though. While installing an AMS might be a good move for your farm, don’t assume labor needs will automatically decrease, or that your current farm labor force will be the right labor force for your new needs, cautions Chuck Schwartau, University of Minnesota regional extension educator based in Rochester, Minn.

“An AMS should reduce the number of milking technicians, but other positions will also be impacted and the qualifications of your staff may change. You might find a need for more skilled labor than you currently have on your farm,” he says.

Large or small?

With a few notable exceptions, AMS units have been most successfully integrated into U.S. farms with 50 to 1,000 cows.

A profitability analysis published in the December 2003 Journal of Dairy Science found that the technology was competitive on farms from 50 to 130 cows, with the most benefit shown for 60-cow farms. The economics have changed somewhat since this analysis was conducted, but cost remains a primary consideration when investigating these systems.

Study authors noted, however, that non-economic factors also influence decisions. Therefore, they say that the decision really comes down to the interests and wishes of the farm owner or manager.

There is a great deal of interest about AMS units among larger farms, as well, largely driven by labor and cost concerns.

To this end, manufacturers have been working on robotic systems that are more compatible with the needs of bigger operations.

This fall, DeLaval announced the introduction of its automatic milking rotary system. The system is designed to be flexible enough to operate in different farming practices, from free-stalls and loose housing to pasture-based dairying. The technology will be highlighted this month at the EuroTier 2010 event in Hannover, Germany.

Joakim Rosengren, president of DeLaval, says this new equipment is in response to customer needs, and is a key part of the company’s “Smart Farming” initiative.

Meanwhile, BouMatic previewed its SR1 post milking robotic spray system at World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wis., last month. The unit is compatible with nearly all external rotary systems, and is designed to help reduce labor cost and promote efficient teat dip usage and consistent application, says John Mansavage, director of global marketing services.

What about milk quality?

AMS units now feature second- and third-generation technology, and multi-generational software, which has resulted in greater efficiencies and improved milking.

But milk quality itself remains a big question in many people’s minds.

A study in the August 2009 Journal of Dairy Science quantified milk quality on 182 farms in Finland that switched to AMS technology. Results indicated a small, but statistically significant, increase in the percentage of cows with somatic cell counts above 200,000 cells per milliliter — 3.3 percent for AMS cows versus 2.1 percent in their previous management system.

Some decrease in milk quality is not unexpected with a conversion, say experts, and these results are not of huge biological value and, therefore, should not dissuade farmers from considering AMS technology.

Another study in the September 2010 Journal of Dairy Science examined the relationship between udder health and hygiene on 151 Dutch farms with AMS units. Results show that the annual average percentage of new cows with a high somatic cell count was positively related to the proportion of cows with dirty teats before milking. This simply illustrates the point that hygiene matters when it comes to milk quality, regardless of the system used to milk cows.

“Our bulk tank somatic cell count has not exceeded 200,000 since we switched to robots,” says Ashley, manager of the KBS facility in Michigan, who also notes significantly improved teat-end health since the conversion. “Teat-end health is my favorite part of the robots.”

Management impacts

Finally, the chance for more time to actually manage your herd is one more attractive aspect of AMS technology. An AMS set-up should free you up to do more true dairy management, notes Schwartau. You’ll spend less time physically managing cows, and more time analyzing data, records and trends.

This requires discipline to accomplish. Keep in mind that if the “extra” management time is not well spent, it comes with a hefty price tag.

How quickly do cows adapt?

Last year, the 100-cow milking herd at Michigan State University’s Kellogg Biological Station moved from a traditional free-stall barn to a new free-stall facility that features two automatic (robotic) milking systems and access to pasture.

Initially, cows weren’t too sure about the change. “During their first robotic milking, the cows vocalized, eliminated, stepped and kicked frequently, suggesting that they did not like being in the robotic milker,” says Janice Siegford, Michigan State University assistant professor of animal behavior and welfare. Milk production dropped dramatically, as well.

 But, in less than 24 hours, stepping and kicking prior to teat attachment dropped, and vocalization and elimination nearly disappeared. “In both cases, the rapid reduction in stress-related behaviors could be attributed to the cows becoming more comfortable in the milker or because they began to focus on eating grain in the robot’s feeder,” she explains.

The speedy acclimation also meant milk production returned to normal quickly, as well. Cows had dropped to 35 pounds per day, probably because they did not experience proper let-down. But again, within 24 hours, that returned to nearly 70 pounds of milk per cow per day, which is normal for the herd.

Finally, within a week of introduction to the new system, more than 80 percent of the herd was milking voluntarily. After two weeks, more than 90 percent was milking voluntarily, and by two months, more than 97 percent of the herd was milking voluntarily.

“Cows thrive on routine and are very curious,” says Mark Futcher, DeLaval marketing manager-automatic milking. In many new-builds and retrofits of AMS to existing facilities, it’s possible to introduce the cows to the unit over time, he says. “This learning process has a profound benefit during the actual system start-up. This strategy has seen some installations realize upwards of 90 percent voluntary milking twice a day within the first two days of starting.”