In early October, I had the opportunity to spend some time in the 'Center of the Dairy Universe', i.e. World Dairy Expo in Madison, WI. There was so much to see; pretty cows, yes, but also all the exhibitor booths, where I spent most of my time. I am mostly attracted to the newest precision and automation technologies, interspersed amongst everything else. As one exhibitor of precision feeding equipment mentioned to me, it is kind of hard to find these technology products with so many other things to see here. This reminds me to mention to please mark your calendars for the 2015 Precision Dairy Conference and Expo which will be a lot more specific to those technology companies. Dates are June 24-25, 2015.

If you read the list of 2014 Dairy Innovation Awards, you saw some of these technologies mentioned, which include cow behavior monitoring devices, hand-held scanning device for feed moisture analysis, creating an pre- and post-dip on-farm production plant, manure nutrient separation system, diversion system for milk according to components, apps for better management of robotic milking systems, and more. Details can be found here. Of course, there were a lot more technologies yet... exciting times!

As I mention robotic milking, I would like to summarize here some key points I made during my talk 'Milking with Robots: How is it Done? Part II' presented on October 2. More than 50% of the attendees indicated that they were interested in or planning to install robots in the future.

So, what are important things to consider if you are interested in using this technology?

  • Do you or your employees like working with cows? Let me tell you a secret: If you install a robotic milking system (RMS), you still need to work hard and pay close attention to your cows. We have seen in our research that the most successful producers enjoy working with cows and don't have the attitude of putting a robot in the barn and leaving cows to their own. Barn and stalls need to be cleaned daily, cows bred and treated, cows fetched, cows fed, etc. It just makes one chore – the tedious milking chore – easier since you don't have to do it yourself, giving you more work time flexibility. That is very helpful especially for smaller operations run with family labor.
  • Do you have the best ration/feeding management? How and what cows are fed in a RMS farm is one of the most important keys for success. We learned from a dairy producer in Pennsylvania that daily average milk production on his farm went from about 60 to 80 pounds per cow by changing ration formulation and feeding management under the advice of an expert RMS nutritionist. It is important to balance the partial mixed ration that goes in the feed bunk to less than the average daily milk production goal per cow then supplement cows according to stage of lactation with the robot pellet. The robot pellet needs to be palatable, as it attracts cows to the milking station. So, do you have a trained/expert nutritionist to work with you?
  • How is your barn? Comfortable? Properly designed? As you know, I am all for good cow comfort in any dairy system. For RMS, it is even more important that cows are healthy and willing to come to the milking station, so for example, a high prevalence of lameness will probably increase the number of fetch cows and reduce efficiency of the robot. It is necessary to have good cow flow (be it free or guided) so that we don't hinder attendance to the robot. You also need to think about how to design the barn to accommodate special needs cows and make your life easier when managing/treating them.
  • Are you handy with equipment? These systems are hi-tech and expensive. If you can learn how to fix little things, it will help make RMS more affordable to you in the long run and reduce the number of failures and problems that can affect robot efficiency. A key factor for success in RMS farms is the amount of milk produced per robot per day. Excellent dairies are getting 5,000+ pounds per day.
  • Is the service provider nearby? For major repairs and routine maintenance, it is important to have a company within a certain radius. If the RMS breaks down for a long period of time, things can get really out of control and create a 'train wreck' very fast. You depend on that one unit to milk 60 to 70 cows and you only have the one unit for that number of cows (and probably more if you have a multiple box system). Keep it at top performance!
  • Do you like technology? Get the most out of it. There is so much information about every cow that you can use to optimize performance and health. RMS companies are developing even more decision making tools that will help organize your day and create a task list every morning.\
  • Are you ready to pay for the cost of repairs and maintenance (and your loan)? A sophisticated piece of equipment requires money to maintain and repair. You can't just go to the local hardware store to get all the parts you need. Please be financially prepared.
  • Do you have strong management skills? As one of our successful project collaborators, Doug Kastenschmidt, said: "Management makes milk. Robots only harvest it!"