None of the other factors that go into the decision to invest in robotic milking is as crucial to success as what you do with the labor that is freed up from milking, say University of Kentucky dairy specialists Derek Nolan and Jeff Bewley.
That’s especially true on small farms, those milking fewer cows with just one or two robots. “The robot allows producers to manage the cow’s individual needs,” says Bewley. “In order to reap all the benefits of the Automated Milk System (AMS), the producer must shift from manual labor to management labor.”
Milking labor should be redirected toward managing cows, says Nolan. “Producers should now spend extra time managing their herd, from retrieving fetch cows and fresh cows to examining alerts from the data provided by the AMS.”
Jim Salfer, a dairy specialist with the University of Minnesota, says robots will reduce farm labor 10% to 29%. So labor savings alone likely won’t pay for the units, typically priced at $200,000 per unit.
“The cost of labor is a major variable in determining the value of the AMS,” he says. So take extra care when doing your pre-investment cash flow projections. But don’t forget to factor in wage inflation, since wage rates tend to increase over time.
“Labor wages will change while the robot [investment] is going to stay constant,” he says. “For every $1 increase in annual labor, the profitability of the robot increases by $4.”
Keep in mind, too, that the longer you can maintain and use a robot, the lower the annual and overall ownership cost becomes. “For every additional year of life of the robot, the value increases by approximately $16,000,” he says. So being able to use a robot five years beyond its expected life, for example, can have a huge impact on ownership costs.
Salfer also says robots can be more profitable than underutilized conventional parlors. That’s because producers with smaller herds tend to over-size their parlors to milk quickly to minimize labor costs. But the capital costs of an over-sized parlor can overwhelm those labor savings.
In turn, robots must also be fully utilized. “After adoption, producers should cull cows that do not adapt to the robot or have long milk out times,” he says. “This will allow the AMS to run more efficiently and have greater throughput.”
You also don’t want to overcrowd the robot or have limited space around the robot, adds Jack Rodenburg, with DairyLogix. “An AMS system can handle around 60 cows,” he says. “More cows per robot than that leads to more fetch cows and lower milking frequency.
“Free space in front of the robot is critical,” he adds. “If space is tight, timid cows will not come up to milk as often, as dominant cows push them out. Anything that attracts cows, such as brushes, needs to be placed at the opposite end of the barn to relieve traffic to the AMS.”
And if you have multiple robots in the same pen of cows, robot orientation should be the same for all units. The same orientation breeds familiarity and encourages cows to use all units because each is similar. “Cows are habitual creatures and if most of the herd decides they like one robot over the other, it will build traffic and lower milking frequency,” says Rodenburg.