Sometimes it takes a while for a revolutionary, industry-changing idea to gain traction. Just ask the folks at Holland-based, dairy equipment maker Lely about the crowd reaction when they brought a robotic milking system (RMS) to exhibit in the World Dairy Expo (WDE) Trade Show back in 2001. “(The company’s booth) was over in the Coliseum building, and we had it on a large, rotating pedestal,” says Steve Fried, Lely sales manager for North America. “It was the greatest display. But nobody came to see us or talk to us. A lot of people thought it was just plain crazy.”
Fast forward more than 15 years and the situation is dramatically different. These days, Lely and other companies exhibiting robotic technology—milking systems, automated feed pushers, manure management systems, feed delivery equipment etc.—see a nearly non-stop stream of producers at their Trade Show booths throughout Expo. “(Automation) is the hottest thing in the market right now,” Fried says. “It’s creating a sense of amazement throughout the industry.”
By most estimates, there were somewhere around 35,000 robotic milking systems (RMS) operating on farms worldwide at the end of 2017. Roughly one-third of the cows in the Netherlands, where robotic milking systems were first introduced in the early 1990s, are milked by robots. In Canada, robots are milking approximately 15% of the national dairy herd. In the U.S. the figure is closer to 2%.
While RMS was considered a technology best-suited for smaller herds (250 cows or fewer) when units started appearing on North America’s dairies in the early 2000s, larger herds have been investing in the technology in recent years. “The market is changing rapidly,” says Francisco Rodriguez, North America dairy robotics manager for DeLaval. “Four years ago, 80% of our customers had no more than four robots (single box units designed to milk 60 to 65 cows in a 24-hour period). Only 20% had more than that. Now, that’s flipped with 80% of our customers purchasing eight or more robots.”
Lely has witnessed a similar demographic shift in the marketplace, Fried reports. “Over the past three years, we have experienced a significant increase in large herd acceptance of milking robots,” he says. “While we still have a large demand in the 120-to- 500-cow sector, the real growth is taking place in the 750-plus (12-plus robot) sector. The beauty of single box robots is they are very modular. Dairy producers milking several thousand cows can put in a 12-robot ‘pilot project,’ monitor the results and grow in stages.”
Robot technology is used to perform a number of tasks on the dairy, from applying post dip to milking cows in box or rotary formats.
Whether it’s on the part of small or large herd owners, a single factor underpins the surge in interest in robotic technology: labor.
“It’s the No. 1 issue leading producers to invest in robots,” says Larry Tranel, dairy specialist at Iowa State University. “Some of it is the cost and the sustainability of labor. Mostly, though, dairy producers are concerned about the availability of good labor that is dependable and consistent.”
Labor considerations were definitely at the forefront when husband and wife dairying team, Ed and Julie Bacon, of Bacon’s Rolling Acres in Columbus, Wis., decided to replace an aging swing-through parlor and freestall barn—on a farm they had purchased from Ed’s parents in 2012—with two, single- box robots housed in a new sand- bedded, three-row freestall barn. The Bacons manage a mixed herd of 40 registered Guernseys (under the prefix Gurn-Z Meadow) and 80 grade Holsteins. “We wanted to spend our time managing cows, not people,” explains Julie, a long- time exhibitor in the WDE Dairy Cattle Show. “We had heard lots of stories about the problems people have with hired employees, like not showing up for milkings and other things. That wasn’t for us.”
Six years later, the Bacons are convinced they made the right decision. “We’ve been able to keep the lifestyle we wanted for ourselves without adding people,” Julie says.
Along with eliminating the milking chore, robotics have streamlined the couple’s approach to management. “The robotic facility gives us the ability to make better decisions,” Julie says. “We have access to information that was previously unobtainable in our conventional setup.”
The management program collects and records more than 140 data points every time a cow s milked. Along with recording basic milk, health and reproductive data, the program monitors items such as body weight, activity and rumination. It also offers 24/7 heat detection. “We’re making management decisions in real time. There’s no waiting for information or making decisions based just on historical data,” Julie says.
Combining the increased access to information with the ability to individually feed cows based on production and increased milking frequency (the average for the Bacons’ milking string is 2.8 per cow per day) has led to increased milk production and better herd health and reproductive performance. Ed believes the cow environment that goes along with milking in a robotic facility also plays a role. “One of the first things people comment on when they come here to see the robots is just how calm our cows seem to be,” he says. “They don’t have all the noise that they do in a conventional parlor or barn with all the fans and milking equipment running. And they have a lot more freedom.”
Fried says the Bacons’ experience is representative of producers making the switch to robotic milking. “It’s interesting to watch what happens when people who are considering robots go to visit people already using them,” he says. “Labor is always the starting point for the conversation. But then it turns quickly to other ‘soft benefits.’ In a robot operation, we’re basically taking the milking equipment to the cow and inviting her to do what she wants to do when she wants to do it, whether that’s eating, laying down, having social time or getting milked.
“What our customers are seeing as a result is an increase in overall milk production even in herds that have been doing three times a day milking, along with a dramatic increase in reproduction efficiency and reduced metabolic issues.”
Companies have used World Dairy Expo to showcase robotic technology. The latest advancements in robotic milking will be on display again in 2018 inside the Trade Show.
“Robotic effect” is the term DeLaval’s Francisco Rodriquez uses to describe such positive benefits. “In a robotic milking system, the cow behaves in a different way,” he says. “It’s a very relaxed environment where there is much less forced interaction with people. The cows are in their own environment, so they’re not under as much stress, and the people working with them are more relaxed. That has a huge effect on the cow. We’re getting more lactations out of those cows and we have better health indicators and more production.”
For all of the upside, producers contemplating a move to robotic milking need to be aware of potential trade- offs, Tranel says. The initial investment required (typically north of $220,000 per single box unit) is a major consideration. “It is basically like purchasing your labor for the next 13 to 17 years but having to pay for it in seven or so years,” he says.
The potential for high repair costs also needs to be taken into account, Ed Bacon says.
“(Robotics) gives you flexibility in scheduling some chores, but you’re basically milking 24/7,” he says. “If something isn’t working right, someone has to be there fix it. It doesn’t matter if it’s three in the afternoon or three in the morning.”
To minimize repairs, the Bacons maintain a parts inventory and attempt to do as many repairs as possible themselves.
“A reliable dealer is still important,” Ed says. “When making our decision on what brand of robots to put in, we considered which dealership would offer the best support.”
Starting with realistic expectations is as important as any other factor in evaluating whether robotic milking technology will work for you, Julie says. “People think you just put the cows out there with the robots and forget about them,” she says. “But that’s not the case. It’s only taking away the time you spend milking. Everything else is the same. You still have to feed the cows, groom the stalls and monitor what’s going on with the herd. The time you used to spend milking, you now spend managing the cows.”