Robots are taking over the world!

Robots are taking over the world!Well, not the entire world, but robots are certainly having an impact on the way business is being done in the dairy industry.

Since the 1990s, robotic milkers have been slowly picking up steam globally. Dairymen in Europe were some of the first to adopt this technology, but it's those American producers who have gone across the pond to learn about the technology who have taken it to another level.

Mason Dixon Farms in Gettysburg, Pa., is a shining example of what can be accomplished through hard work and ingenuity.

"In the year 2000, two of my brothers went to Germany to visit with Claas equipment because they were custombuilding a forage harvester for us," said co-owner Doyle Waybright.

During that visit, Waybright's brothers did what most farmers would — they stopped at other operations to learn about European agriculture.

"They found this new way to milk cows with robots," related Waybright. "They came home talking more about that than the new, very expensive forage harvester we were about to acquire."

It also happened that Mason Dixon Farms was looking at building a new barn with a parlor. This led to Waybright making his own trip to Europe to see robotic milking in action. Right away, he knew this was the direction he wanted to go and he attempted to order 40 robotic milkers. However, he could not get the company he was interested in to make the commitment to that many units in such a quick time.

Instead, Mason Dixon Farms purchased a single unit in 2001 to experiment with the technology. Four years later, the farm invested in robotics more heavily with 10 units in a single barn and now the farm is up to 20 DeLaval VMS robots milking 1,050 cows.

Follow the leader

Dale Hemminger, owner of Hemdale Farms in Seneca Castle, N.Y., has been gradually increasing the size of his operation, moving from a 120-cow dairy more than 20 years ago, to 300 cows, then 500 cows and now a milking herd of 800 cows.

During that growth, Hemminger has looked at many different parlor and milking systems. Robotic milking systems were something that intrigued him because of the flexibility with the units. For instance, it is easier to fit multiple robotic units into an existing barn rather than installing a large parlor.

Before even getting invested into robots, Hemminger made some visits to dairies using robotic milkers. He looked at a robot in a New York museum farm several times, made a trip to Canada to see the newest Lely milker, and went to Waybright's operation, as well.

"I actually visited and have a great friendship with Mason Dixon Farms that at the time had 10 robots," said Hemminger.

"We decided in 2007, and we built a four-robot barn perpendicular to the existing barns with a vision if we stayed robotic we could tie this all together, which we ended up doing," shared Hemminger.

Eighteen months later, Hemminger made the move to shut down his existing parlor and began milking with 12 robots. The dairy later added another robot for a grand total of 13 Lely Astronaut A3s.

Finding access to quality labor had been an issue for Hemdale Farms. But, with the addition of robotic milkers, the dairy has been able to increase its labor efficiency.

"We were shipping 1.2 to 1.3 million pounds of milk per man equivalent per year with the parlor operation and had more than half our heifers boarded out," said Hemminger.

"Today, with the robots, we're at 2.1 or 2.2 million pounds of milk per man equivalent and we've got three-fourths of our heifers home again."

Labor savings

Gingrich Meadows Dairy in Leroy, Mich., was one of the first farms in the U.S. to use GEA Farm Technologies" MIone multi-box automatic milking system. The 300-cow dairy is currently using two GEA MIone four-box units which were introduced to the European markets in 2005 and recently became available in North America.

For co-owner Amy Martin, the move to robotic milking has been a positive one, especially when it comes to spending time with family.

"We have more family time; for example, it's me and my brother who own the farm, and we were actually able to take a vacation together this spring," said Martin. "We left my oldest son and two employees to run the entire farm —all of the heifers, all of the cows, everything — for a week, which was great."