In the 1970s the idea of a machine or robot that could perform all that was necessary to milk a cow without human intervention seemed to most of us either a fantasy or a space age dream! By the end of the 1990s there were over 400 robots (automatic milking systems) milking cows on European dairy farms and the first milking robot was in operation in Canada. In 2002 there were three farms in Pennsylvania with operating robots. I do not know how many Pennsylvania farms have milking robots in 2011. However, anyone interested in this technology can likely find an operating robot within a couple of hours drive. They can also find experienced local sales and service for two brands with extensive US experience and a third brand that has several years of operation in Europe and is now handled by a US company. A system for use on large rotary parlors has also been announced. It is safe to assume that every major company supplying milking systems or milking parlor equipment is closely watching or developing equipment related to automatic milking practices.
Automatic milking systems are still a very new technology. Early adopters are doing pioneering work on just how to take advantage of the positive aspects of this technology and how to fix or work around the negative or unknown problems. One might say this technology is in its adolescent stage. In many circumstances it is grown up and capable of getting milking and cow care done consistently well. On the other hand there are still some areas where the technology is a little awkward, testing its wings and learning how to be the best it can be. The ability to recognize and locate teats, perform pre-milking operations, attach machines, evaluate milk quality and complete the milking process are well developed. Manufacturers are now working on how to speed up these tasks and improve milk quality monitoring methods.
Designers and installers of the machines and the barns in which they are placed are still learning the importance and details of the most suitable barn layout (robot, resting and feeding space and location), resting area construction and management, interior barn climate control, feeding scenarios, stall maintenance and cow observation. Management and herd health advisors are still calibrating their recommendations to the needs, strengths and weaknesses of this technology. Farmers and herd managers are constantly learning new positive and negative issues encountered with this new method for managing milking cow. I regularly have to remind myself that a milking robot is part of a whole new cow management system and not just a replacement for the human being holding the milking unit.
Following are some observations I have made over the years from numerous visits to these operations; reading reports and articles; and discussions with owner/operators, dairy designers and builders, advisors and robot supply personnel in Europe, Canada and the US.
Comments and observations are in no particular order and the list is not complete:
- Healthy, mobile and clean cows that are motivated to eat are essential.
- Successful managers institute “extreme cow care” comfort, cleanliness and health practices.
- There has been no significant change in capital costs. Predicted decreases have yet to occur.
- Operating costs are difficult to predict.
- Reasonable expected operating life of hardware before replacement or major overhaul is still variable.
- There is a supply of second hand reconditioned robots developing in Western Europe but no apparent consensus on the advisability of taking this option.
- Typical reports indicate the primary impact on labor is more flexibility in scheduling and more time spent in management. Savings may become more obvious or accountable with larger numbers of robots on a single farm.
- The robot can call you anytime day or night. Learning what alarms are critical and how to respond to them is still as much and art as a science.
- A strong comfort level with computer interaction is necessary to take maximum advantage from the production, health and management information that the robot will provide.
- Stall maintenance and bedding replenishment must be done with minimum disturbance of cows’ routines. Robot placement and installation
- There is no consensus on optimum number of robots per cow group or group size?
- Some believe that giving cows an opportunity to select which side she is to be milked from would be advantageous.
- Making things comfortable for the timid cow by reducing opportunities for boss cows to control robot access is important.
- Positive pressure conditioned air space for the robot to enhance operation and satisfy needs for fly control etc.
- How to best provide access to the robot for the operator without traveling through cow travel lanes is still debated.
- Higher levels of climate control in more severe climates – automatic natural or mechanical ventilation is common.
- Determination of the optimum layout to encourage desired cow traffic to robot, feed and water.
- Clean slip resistant comfortable flooring.
- Where and how to separate and hold cows requiring human attention.
Only you can decide if this technology is in your future. If it sounds interesting take advantage of tours, open houses and feel free to contact one of the Pennsylvania businesses that support this new technology.
----- Robert E. Graves, Professor Extension Agricultural Engineer Department of Agricultural & Biological Engineering, Penn State