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Barn design: How to calculate the size of the treatment or sort pens in robot barns

Ben Smink for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 July 2017

With thousands of robots in place on North American dairies, barn layouts and designs are becoming more diverse. The key to robot success is for the producer to be passionate about the barn layout and make sure the design fits the goals of the dairy.

Robotic milking can be implemented in most barn layouts, but certain design features improve voluntary cow traffic, cow comfort and, as a result, milk production.

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We recommend four key elements for successful robot barn design:

 1. Free cow traffic: A study by the University of Wisconsin – Madison of 635 robot farms found 2.4 pounds more milk per cow per day on farms using free-flow traffic than farms using guided or forced-cow traffic.

 2. Two robots per cow pen: The same study found cow pens using two robots averaged 132 pounds of milk per robot per day more than pens using only one robot.

 3. Lots of space around the robot: Space around the robot is necessary so cows can choose to eat, drink, milk and lie down to rest and ruminate at their own convenience.

 4. Separation pens to handle cows: We want to limit human interaction in the cow pen during the day, which has shown to affect cow flow, dry matter intake and, eventually, milk production of timid cows.

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Separation pen types

Dairy producers often ask us about separation pens. There are a few things to consider:

1. Are you going to use the pen for cow touches, like breeding, treating or herd health checks, only? If that is the case, you can get away with a layout like Figure 1, where cows are not able to get back to the robot.

Pen for few cow touches morning only

For example, cows only route from about 3 a.m. until 10 a.m., so they are ready for the veterinarian or breeder and are immediately brought back into the main pen.

This type of pen will need access to the feedbunk, water and rest space. This design is not suitable if there are no strict standard operating protocols in place. These strict standard operating protocols need to ensure cows are back in the main pen within a few hours.

 2. Are the cows going to stay for a day or two? For example, if the cows are recovering from a disease or after calving, will they be in the pen in order to get accustomed to robot milking at the beginning of the lactation? In that scenario, the barn design has to allow for cows to be able to go to the robot to milk themselves (see Figure 2).

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 Pen for cow touches and few day stay

3. If you use the pen for cow touches, but also for cows to stay for an extended period of time, you may want to opt for a bedded pack for good cow comfort (see Figure 3). In this case, high-need cows can still go to the robot themselves while having an environment in which to recover.

Pen for a few day stay including bedded pack

In all of these examples, the herd veterinarian and breeder should be able to easily handle the cow touches efficiently using headlocks or a squeeze gate and not have to go in the main pen. In most situations, headlocks would not be needed anymore in the main pen.

The only time a person gets in the main pen is a few minutes in the morning and in the evening to collect a few cows for milking while scraping crossovers and cleaning beds. This guarantees the normal production herd remains undisturbed.

Separation pen size

Dairy producers also ask us how big of a pen they need. The answer depends on how many cows have to be comfortably housed in the pen at any given time. We recommend you consider the worst-case scenario when deciding the size of a pen.

Ask yourself:

  1.  How many cow touches do you expect every day? Consider treatments for breeding, preg checks, vaccinations, OvSynch shots, hoof trimming, dry-off and reactive health checks. Large dairies should consider daily instead of weekly schedules for preg checks and shots for a more constant occupation of the separation pen.

  2.  Which day of the week, month or year do you have the highest number of cow touches?

  3. Think about peak-period scenarios where the hoof trimmer comes in to treat a larger batch of cows or when the peak of dry-off or vaccination takes place.

  4.  How long do you expect a cow to be in the pen?

  5. Is there a guaranteed relieve time of a cow from the separation pen to the main pen?

  6.  Do cows stay in this pen longer after calving or to recover? In that case, make sure to have a design like Figure 2 or 3 so cows can go to the robot themselves in time.

  7. Do the simple math based on these six points, and you have your required pen size.

We recommend producers who consider robots tour as many dairies as they can. It does not matter which brand of automated milking system a barn has. You can learn the pros and cons of different designs from each farm visit.

When you tour an automated milking dairy, do not just look at the robot room but focus on the cows and the entire barn. Take note of the cows’ behavior.

Observe their comfort level and how easily they are handled. Cows accustomed to robots will approach humans easily. If cows are shy and timid, the cow is not comfortable with handling and touches.

Observe the cows in a barn before entering the feed alley. You should see quiet, peaceful cows resting, eating and lingering.  end mark

Contact Ben Smink for more information on barn designs, the right size and shape of separation pens and how labor plans and standard operating protocols play a key role in successful robotic dairies.

Ben Smink
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