The Rise of the Robots - Continued

( Melvern Hills Farm )


“This is one of the fastest-moving on-farm technologies there is,” Waybright says. “At this point in time, we have 10-year-old milking robots, and they’re antiques by comparison of what’s available today.”

Still, some of the same principals are the same, says Chad Huyser, president of Lely North America. 

“Yes, robots today have a different appearance, but at a basic core they are very much built upon the same foundational things that we started 25 years ago,” Huyser says. Pete Knigge in Omro, WI was the first dairy in the U.S. to install Lely robots and did so in 2000.

While the robots are foundationally the same, how those robots milk cows has evolved, he adds.

“When we look at how we milk cows, the evolution is night and day when it comes to the importance of how we manage the time the cow is in the milking process,” Huyser says. 

Time is the real limiting factor to production, and Huyser says the evolution in robotic technology allows for cows to be milked around the clock. 

“The one thing we can’t create more of is time. When you’re managing a robot dairy, you’re managing time,” Huyser says. “When you compare robots of 20-plus years ago to robots of today, a lot of the maturing of the technology is around efficiency.” 

The data acquired on each cow each day is another area where the evolution in robot technology has grown by leaps and bounds.

“We’ve made monumental steps in terms of the efficiency that we pull information and the data from each cow, each milking, each quarter,” Huyser says. “Now we’re able to use that data for the benefit of the cow, machine optimization and certainly back to the producer to help make that dairy farm run as efficiently as possible."


As robotics evolved, so did the cows management in a robot system. 

“Back in 2010 we were at 50 cows per robot, 80 lb. per cow or 4,000 lb. per robot, and that was great,” Rodriguez says. Then the industry started to realize that focus needed to be placed on the cow and the people managing the system, not just on how the robots were operating in the facility.

"[Farmers] began to realize if they put the right people in the right place with the right mindset, they can achieve great things," he says. "In 2013, the first dairy hit 7,000 lb. per robot per day. That dairy in Wisconsin was milking 62 cows per robot at 100 lb. to 105 lb. per cow per day. It was a sand bedded, cross-ventilated facility, and those guys were really thriving. That's when it was proven that robots could work in real American conditions."

Sales data indicates robotic milking in the U.S. started to explode in 2014. Today, farms of all sizes are evaluating and installing robotic units.

“In the last 10 years, robotic milking in the U.S. has transformed from a niche market for small dairies and early technology adopters to the industry standard,” says Stuart Marshall, GEA automated milking sales specialist. “Herds of all sizes in all regions are integrating robotics, and robotic milking is overtaking conventional milking in new equipment purchases.” 

As for Waybright, he says he’ll never go back to a conventional parlor system for his entire herd, although they still use one to milk sick cows and train heifers to the idea of being milked.

The standard industry response for the lifespan of a robot is 15 years. All of the companies will support the units for that long or longer. Waybright says he’s currently weighing the cost of installing new robots with the cost of repairs and maintenance on his 10-year-old units. 

“What we don’t know is the life of the current model we have,” he says. “The past 12 months we spent $69,000 on parts alone for 20 milking stations. At some point I’ve got to weigh that against the cost of a new one. I don’t think it’s going to be 15 years.” 

As technology evolves, and the labor market continues to tighten, there’s no doubt robot use will increase.

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