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3 tips to prepare robots for extreme cold

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 11 December 2018
Enclosed robot from extreme weather

Just as parlors may be challenged by below-zero temperatures, robot barns are at risk of freezing too.

However, according to Whitney Davis, capital sales director for Finger Lakes Dairy Services in Seneca Falls, New York, there are a few things dairy farmers can do to keep robots running smoothly when the mercury drops.

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“The goal is to keep the robot room from freezing,” Davis says. “It’s not a big problem; it just has to be addressed, same as in the milking parlor. We need to be sure water doesn’t freeze.”

For either a new or a retrofit barn, Davis encourages dairy owners to install in-floor heat in the robot room as the primary heat source. “The most cost-effective solution is to put radiant floor heat in the concrete,” he says. “That’s a very effective and energy-efficient way to do it, and it’s an inexpensive installation. Almost everyone uses this simple system in our robot installations.”

In his experience working with dairies throughout central and western New York, many with automated systems won’t miss a beat operating robots in winter. But those few coldest days of the year can pose a real problem for some barns, particularly retrofitted facilities.

“In retrofits, most of the time the existing barn is not insulated,” he says. Compounded by other variables such as the barn’s orientation in relation to prevailing winds, as well as the local climate and topography, the risk for freezing heightens.

When freezing occurs, a layer of ice, particularly on the teat cups, may interfere with proper attachment and detachment. Icing may also inhibit functions like pivoting and retracting, which might cause non-precise operation and potential robot phone calls to the dairy farmer too.

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However, robot dairies can prepare for sub-zero weather. Davis outlines three things to do in cold barns to keep robots running smoothly on the coldest day of the year.

1. Provide a secondary heat source in the robot room

“In a really cold, uninsulated barn with robot rooms located on the same side as prevailing winds, a secondary heat source may be needed,” Davis says. “That can be a gas-fired blower heater placed in the robot room.”

Also, a portable gas radiant heater can be directed at the arm of the robot where we need to keep it from freezing and is used on just the very coldest winter days.

One dairy installed a gas pipeline into the robot room with quick-connect attachments for heaters. With this approach, the heaters are only placed in the room when they are needed and can be turned on and off quickly to achieve the goal of warming the room.

2. Create a ‘windblock’ around the box

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Another way to prevent freezing is to create a barrier that keeps warmth inside while blocking cold air from entering through the opening between the robot room and the barn.

“The opening to the barn, where the arm goes through to work on the cow … that’s where heat loss comes from,” Davis explains. “I’ve seen some customers in really cold barns temporarily enclose the barn side of the robot box simply by putting up ‘siding’ along the fence where the cow stands while milking,” Davis says. This can be as simple as affixing a piece of plywood or other siding to act as a temporary windblock, thus minimizing the entry of cold air from the barn into the robot room.

On some dairies with cold barns, Davis has seen a more permanent fix. One particular farm built a wall outside the robot box fencing with an overhang above the cow. They added paneling, freezer strips and an air curtain to enclose the area and keep it warm while also letting in light.

3. Keep the barn closed

As simple as it sounds, properly closed overhead doors and curtains can be the difference between a restful night’s sleep and a robot call or problems with other barn equipment. Keep the entire barn warmer by taking the time to make sure doors seal tightly shut and automated curtains are working properly. Cold air can easily sneak through even the smallest opening, lowering the temperature of the entire building and the robot room too.

“Consider, if practical, insulating the barn. It’s an added cost, but people are doing it because it really makes a difference and the return is there,” Davis notes. “This benefits the cows and the robots since milk loss can occur from extreme cold and extreme heat.” If a side of the barn is open, adding curtains also helps.

As frigid temperatures set in, Davis reminds dairy farmers preparation is the key, no matter what type of milking system is in place. He adds, “It’s just the same as in the milking parlor; you need to have a plan to minimize problems on those few days of extreme cold.”

For those considering robotic milking, it’s best to visit a few cold barn robot dairies to see cold-weather remedies can be simple, cost-efficient and effective.  end mark

PHOTO: Lawler Dairy in Peosta, Iowa, built a wall outside the robot box fencing with an overhang above the cow. Paneling, freezer strips and an air curtain enclose the area and prevent cold air from entering the robot room and causing issues with freezing. Photo provided by Whitney Davis.

Peggy Coffeen
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