Why not let the robots do the work?

It's easy to get lost in the whirlwind of new technologies as new inventions seem to dot the news weekly, if not daily, but one technology that every producer is sure to have heard of is robotic milking. While robotic milking systems have been around in Europe since 1992, the first robotic milking system wasn't installed in the U.S. until 2000; their numbers have slowly increased to over 25,000 worldwide. Robotic milking systems are a huge financial commitment, not to mention the numerous brands of robotic milking systems out there, which can make the decision of whether or not robotic milking is right for your farm extremely difficult.

When considering installing a robotic milking system on your farm, you should first assess your current situation and your future goals. If you have a small family farm and are looking to expand to include the next generation but don't want to hire outside labor, robotic milking may be the way to go, but if you're looking to pay off current debt and maximize profits before retiring, staying with your current milking system may be a better option.

One of the biggest benefits of implementing a robotic milking system on your farm is schedule flexibility, as producers will have more time for upper level management and activities off the farm. Farms with robotic milking systems will also require less outside labor, especially important in areas where labor is difficult to find, and in some cases no additional labor outside of the farm family will be needed. Requiring less outside labor can decrease the amount of stress on the manager because although they can break down, robots will never show up late or call in sick to work. Additionally the robot can send alerts to the producer's cell phone to update them on any issues with the system so that they can be addressed in a timely manner.

The robot also has automatic sensors that can generate reports for udder health, milk production, reproductive status, feed intake, and body weight changes, allowing producers to closely monitor cows compared to a conventional parlor where this information may not be as easily obtained. Another benefit of robotic milking systems is increased milk production (up to 12%) because cows can choose to be milked more frequently, and cows that are milked more frequently typically produce more milk.

The robotic milking system can also milk each quarter individually and detach individually to prevent overmilking and improve udder health and teat condition. Along with this, the robotic milking system can separate milk after a cow has freshened or if she has been treated with antibiotics, removing the need to separate cows from the lactating herd. Another benefit to robotic milking is the ability to customize feeding by offering specified amounts to different cows depending on milk production, days in milk, and stage of lactation. Robotic milking systems may also improve the perceived welfare of the cows on the farm as cows choose when and how often they are milked.

Robotic milking systems have a very high start-up cost, which can include the construction of a new barn depending on your current facilities. Currently the cost of a robotic milking system is nearly double that of a conventional parlor, with a robot capable of milking 50 to 60 cows costing about $210,000 and a double 8 parlor milking 120 cows costing about $250,000. To add to the expense, robotic milking systems typically don't last as long as a conventional parlor. The useful life of a robot is 7 to 12 years compared to 15 to 20 years for a parlor. Robotic milking systems may also have difficulty milking problem cows such as cows with teats that point out to the sides or udders that hang too low. In addition, lame and sick cows can create difficulties because they will likely not get up to get milked and they will need to be fetched, adding to the producer's workload. Housing cows with mastitis in the same location as healthy cows may also be a concern, as this could lead to possible contamination through bedding. Another concern with robotic milking systems is the regular maintenance of the robots and depending on your location technicians may not be readily available.

Ultimately the decision to implement a robotic milking system is up to you. You need to ask yourself if a robotic milking system fits into your future goals for your farm and if you are willing to change your current management style to incorporate this new system. If your answer is yes to both of these questions, you may want to consider talking to other farms who have a robotic milking system along with a representative from a robotic milking system company to help get you started.