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Lessons learned in robotic milking from three Indiana dairies

Somula Schwoeppe for Progressive Dairyman Published on 09 June 2017
Robotic milking panel

The theme of the first Indiana Dairy Forum was “Your Family, Your Farm, Our Commitment.” Brownfield’s Dave Russell served as emcee, and Dr. Tom Furhmann of Dairyworks provided leadership tools for management toolboxes both days of the forum with his “Who Controls our Future” and “Management Rules to Live By” presentations.

Furhmann also served as facilitator of the robotic milking panel discussion.

The panelists were John Adam, Knollbrook Farm; Tony Bos, Bos Dairy; and Tim Gamble, Gamble Dairy LLC. Knollbrook Farm has been milking 110 Holsteins and Jerseys housed in a bedded-pack barn and on pasture with a robotic milker for three-and-a-half years.

Gamble Dairy LLC has been milking with robots for one-and-a-half years with both some new construction and a retrofitted freestall barn. Bos Dairy has been milking 720 cows in new construction with freestalls and robots for a year-and-a-half.

Furhmann asked a series of questions of the panelists, to which there were a variety of responses due to the different management styles of the farms. One thing they all agreed on is: Robotic milking requires excellent service from your dealer, and the speed of success when transitioning to robotic milking is heavily dependent upon the relationship you have with your equipment dealer and their technicians.

What are the things a dairyman should be thinking about and looking at when considering transitioning to robotic milking?

Adam: The number one thing is: Who is coming back to the farm? You can easily handle 120 cows with two people. If you are looking at robots, make sure you get out and look at a lot of facilities. And when you make your decision to build, make sure your utility room is large enough.

Bos: Look at everything because it is all new technology. The biggest thing we didn’t talk about beforehand is milk inspectors – there are a lot of things that can go wrong, lots of gaskets to leak. You’ve got to learn everything else as it comes along.

Gamble: You can put robots in in a lot of different ways. You have to be open-minded enough to accept ideas and suggestions from others to be successful. The cows will figure it out; you will too if you are open-minded.

Are cows doing better?

Adam: Before we had robots we were milking twice a day; 55 to 60 cows were taking us three-and-a-half hours to milk, and we had cows standing in the sun, exposed to the elements six to seven hours a day. The huge difference with the robots is: The cows make the choice to be milked; they can go eat and drink as they choose. We have gone up 5 to 6 pounds per day.

Bos: Overall, I am going to need 5 to 7 pounds of milk plus the other benefits of cull rate, breeding and hoof health, which should equal another 2 pounds to make this a good investment. Across the board, the robot parlor currently is 5 to 6 pounds over our conventional dairy. We have had an issue with butterfat; the fat is still a point to 1.5 lower than conventional.

Gamble: Our parlor was worn out 10 years before we replaced it. With robots, the milking average is 2.8 to 2.9 times a day. We went up 5 to 6 pounds. In summer, the butterfat dropped, but with feed changes and good forage, we are up to 6.5 pounds of solids. There have been struggles, but we have a good nutritionist.

How do you handle feed management?

Adam: We use a good-tasting pellet that is high-energy. It is about like candy and brings them in. They get 10 to 11 pounds per cow per day; top producers get 16 pounds.

Bos: If the PMR has too much energy, they won’t go get milked. My PMR is a lot shaggier than my TMR; it is high-forage. They get 12 to 12.5 pounds of pellets per cow per day.

Gamble: We have a four-row, drive-through barn, with our cows in two groups. We feed two batches in the morning and a third batch in the afternoon. We feed 57 pounds of dry matter balanced for 70 pounds of production in the PMR. In the robot, we are feeding simple, basic ground corn with few additives at the average rate of 12 pounds a day.

Before we started with the robots, we priced everything for the whole project, and the cost of having our feed pelleted was an additional $18 a ton. With the addition of the grain in the robot, we are balanced for 100 pounds of production. Mark Rose with Lely in Ontario, Canada, has helped us tremendously with our milk and feed access tables; he has experience far beyond ours with robots.

What about your days open and calving interval?

Adam: You know exactly when to breed cows. The activity monitor works so good, it is one of the greatest strengths of the robot system.

Bos: Days in milk and calving interval have all improved in the robot barn. The heat detection system – activity monitoring – is really accurate.

Gamble: We went from no monitoring to this. It is a huge advantage for us. Our pregnancy rate in the parlor was 18 percent and, with the robots, it is now 25 percent.

What about the people-to-cow interactions, both scheduled and unscheduled? How do you get over inefficiencies?

Adam: You get through the first six months to a year, and then you love it. Sometimes we need help with the heifers. We plan to put in headlocks when the milk price goes up.

Bos: We lock up cows for drying off, pregnancy checks and tail chalking in the conventional dairy. In the robot barn, it is all automatic. We do not have headlocks; everything is routed according to the computer data. It is simple – the robot routes the cow. The herdsman needs to know the cows.

Gamble: We breed the cows in the freestalls; for certain cows we get help and use the single headlock we have. Unscheduled stuff, we deal with as it comes. Milking a fresh cow takes longer. We put cows in the chute to treat and to trim.

What about non-compatible cows?

Adam: Cross teats are an issue. The robot can put them on, [but] it puts them on opposite. It is not perfect.

Bos: We move cows to the other dairy. Close teats are the biggest problem.

Gamble: Compatibility depends on how much you want to mess with the cow.

Provide some closing comments about robots.

Adam: The robots give you time, flexibility and allow you family time and quality of life. People are absolutely amazed cows choose to be milked. Since I’ve put the robot in, I could easily see growing the herd size and adding more robots. Maintenance costs are higher. Get on a quarterly schedule. The less time you’re off, the [fewer] problems you have.

Bos: Proactive maintenance is always better than reactive maintenance. The robots are dependent on the manager. With a robot, you cannot make mistakes. You have to fix the problems. You cannot afford to have mistakes. If you have 30 fetch cows, then you can’t be efficient.

Gamble: We have the cows making the decisions – when she is going to be milked, when she is going to eat and drink, when she is going to rest. We have to be dedicated, and we have to be open-minded. I cannot stress enough that the cow will figure out the robot, and you will too, if you allow yourself to do so.  end mark

PHOTO: The robotic milking panelists were (left to right): John Adam, Knollbrook Farm; Tony Bos, Bos Dairy and Tim Gamble, Gamble Dairy LLC. Tom Furhmann (not pictured) of Dairyworks moderated the panel. Photo by Somula Schwoeppe. 

Somula Schwoeppe is a freelance writer based in Huntingburg, Indiana.

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