Transitioning of Herds to Automatic Milking Systems

Interest in the use of automatic milking systems (AMS) continues to be high, even in a stressed dairy economy. Some of the primary reasons reported for this change in milking technology include: 1) reduction in labor, especially hired labor, 2) more flexible life-style, and 3) potential improvement in cow heath and milk yield. At present (September 2018), we have about 2140 dairy farms in Ohio and 52 farms with AMS, with about 143 AMS on Ohio farms. Thus, about 2.4% of the dairy farms in Ohio have the AMS. The vendors are primarily Lely and DeLaval, with one farm now having installed the GEA system.  Although the adoption rate in Ohio is growing, it is certainly less than in Europe, Canada (6.8% in 2015), and several other states in the US. One of the aspects of adopting the AMS system that can be challenging, at least for a few weeks, is the transition period from the conventional milking system to the AMS.

A study conducted by four major universities in Canada titled “Producer experience with transitioning to automatic milking: cow training, challenges, and effect on quality of life” was reported in the 2018 October issue of the Journal of Dairy Science. Producers (n = 217 responses) from 8 Canadian providences using the Lely and DeLaval AMS were surveyed during 2014 and 2015. Overall, 42% of the producers trained animals to the AMS before the first milking. Feeding in the AMS was often practiced during training, but spraying of teats was less frequent. During training, small groups of cows (< 20) were commonly used. For producers who used a training program, it typically took 7 days to train a cow or heifer. It was estimated in the study that it would take 30 days to adapt a herd to an AMS, and the length of this duration was not different for those herds that did or did not train animals prior to the first milking in the AMS. About 2% of the cows within the herds were culled for not adapting to the AMS, with the range being 0 to 40%.

Some of the challenges experienced by dairy producers in the transition to the use of AMS included:

Challenge                                Some common solutions expressed

Learn to use AMS                    Time and patience, help from dealer

Cow training                            Time and patience, creating small groups for training,
                                                recruiting extra help during training period

Feeding                                   Working with nutritionist

Trusting the AMS                     Time and patience

Other challenges stated included: demanding during the first few days/weeks, changing health management, non-AMS transition issues caused by converting from tiestall to freestall, building modifications, technical issues, feet and leg issues, being on call, lack of support, decreased milk quality, finances, and employee management and training. Overall, producers positively scored all improvement and expectation statements, indicating a high level of satisfaction with the AMS.

Obviously, changing to an AMS system requires a lot of planning. Initially, the mission and succession plans for the dairy operation need to be clarified and the financial plan fully developed. During even the initial phases, it is important to visit with equipment dealerships to discuss cost, service, and start up help provided and to visit operations whereby the use of the AMS has been in effect for different periods of time, e.g. 6 months, 1 year, 3 years, etc., to learn how transitioning occurred, any development of problems over time, and dependability of service from the dealer. Once the decision is made to install an AMS but prior to the transition, plans need to be made for the practices used during transition (e.g. training), personnel needed during the transition, and time of year relative to when other major events will be taking place on the farm or for the family. With all of the challenges in the transition, time and patience were the major points identified. A well-organized plan can provide for a more smooth transition and working closely with the dealer, nutritionist, and other professionals before and during the transition can reduce the risk and duration for challenges during the transition.