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Considering robotic milking? Spend your time before you spend your money

Whitney Davis for Progressive Dairy Published on 30 September 2019

Just like any substantial project for your dairy operation, a robotic milking facility will represent a significant capital investment. Considering that you will utilize what you buy and build every day for the next 20 to 30 years, the payback for the time you spend researching is substantial.

Doing so will allow you to learn from the experiences of those who work with robotic milking systems every day – some for five to 10 years or more. Most robotic dairies will allow other dairy producers to visit their operations (with an appointment) to see and hear what they’ve done, why they did it, how well it works and what they might suggest for you to do additionally or maybe even differently. Albert Einstein reportedly said, “The only source of knowledge is experience.” It is a great resource that dairy operators can benefit from the experience of robotic operations and supporting advisers.

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Robotic milking is a unique herd management system and is quite different from how most dairies have been operating for decades. It is not difficult to implement, but it is a change, and this change requires time. Patience, open-mindedness and following the advice of experienced robotic system professionals and other robot dairies is crucial for a smooth transition. Many of our dealerships’ robot dairy customers have told me, “The cows learn faster than the people” and “We had to learn to lose the parlor herd management mentality.”

Once the initial transition is made, there are numerous benefits for the cows and the dairy owners who use robotic systems. These benefits sometimes need to be seen to be believed or fully understood.

When researching robotic milking, consider three primary areas of concentration: barn layout, herd management/data utilization, and equipment (type/style, brand, dealer). For all three of these areas, experience is key, particularly in regard to results over time. It sometimes is not possible to see all three aspects at the same dairy. For example, the newest model of equipment will typically (but not always) exist on a dairy with the least experience in terms of time operating robotically. It will be beneficial for you to seek the input of a well-experienced robotic equipment dealer, other robot dairies, robotic dairy consultants, nutritionists, etc., as to which combination of dairies to visit to accomplish all three aspects of your research.

There are many robot dairies to visit offering a variety of barn configurations, robot placement types, herd sizes and time in operation (experience). Today, there are more than 75 robot dairies in New York, hundreds operating in the U.S. and thousands around the world. To help a dairy in its research process, I personally spend a lot of time taking them to visit robot dairies. I suggest whom to visit based on the particular needs and goals of those who are looking although, in general, the more robot dairies visited, the better, time permitting.

Since many things are changing rapidly in the dairy industry, it’s always a good idea to think about tomorrow’s challenges and plan for the future. While a good number of industry practices will continue to achieve great results, some may not. What worked in the past (or with another system) may not work that well in the future or can be somewhat different with robotic milking systems. Management of the robot herd in which every cow is on a different schedule (its own) is one example. Once a dairy operation has adapted to this change with the assistance of robotic herd management support, many benefits can be realized.

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When planning for this next big next step for your dairy business, it can be helpful to gain a new perspective, and this is sometimes best accomplished by getting out of your “own backyard.” This means spending some additional time to visit other areas of the state – or even other states.

Robotic dairies are typically not “cookie cutter” installations, and all robotic equipment is not the same. Sometimes there are individual herd management differences that influence labor efficiency and herd results. Practices may vary in different areas, and so might the results. By comparing and contrasting, you may widen your perspective to determine how best to implement robotic milking on your operation.

What dairies to visit?

First, are you planning a retrofit to an existing building or to build a new barn? Visit relevant dairies accordingly. What configuration of barn (three-, four-, six-, eight-row, etc.) is best for your site and herd management? What type of robot layout do you prefer, and will it best accomplish your goals? The barn layout plan to accommodate robotic milking is very important because it can either impede or benefit your cows and possibly the labor efficiency of your robotic herd.

Next, herd size should be considered. The layout and management of a two- to four-robot facility is often quite different than a larger herd of eight, 20 or 36 robots or more. Are you phasing in robots over time so some cows will still be milked in a parlor or transitioning the whole herd at once? This consideration will help you make both short-term and long-term “whole-herd” decisions. Other areas of focus should be feeding strategies, hoof bath placement, bedding practices and automated manure handling, to name just a few.

Don’t overlook a robot dairy because you may have been there years ago. Those with somewhat older facilities or equipment also have the most experience. Many robot dairies have evolved to do things somewhat differently over time as their experience (and that of the robot industry) has grown. Don’t assume all robot dairies operate in the same way or get the same results.

If some unique condition or crisis justifies that you are truly short of time, a must-to visit would be those dairies that are most similar to your operation before the addition of their robots and ideally also have similar goals both before and after adding robots.

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If you are willing and able to spend more time visiting robotic dairy operations, consider widening your horizons. Maybe your operation will double in size over time. If so, visit those dairies that have incrementally grown their herds with robots.

One last thought: You may need to resist the impulse to underestimate the value of, or rush, this very important research step. Ask yourself what’s better for you: to do your project right with a long-term strategy or to do it fast and possibly without knowing the many options and variations available to you? It’s much more costly and frustrating to make changes after the concrete is dry and the equipment is installed.  end mark

Finger Lakes Dairy Services has been a Lely robot dealer since 2007. Whitney Davis has more than 25 years of experience in milking equipment, project design, systems management and investment economics.

Whitney Davis
  • Whitney Davis

  • Robotic Systems Specialist
  • Finger Lakes Dairy Services
  • Email Whitney Davis

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