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Could robots work for you?

Published on 20 July 2009

In New York’s Finger Lakes Region, between Rochester and Syracuse, Hemdale Farms is proving that what has been commonly seen as “little-farm technology” or “space-age stuff” is practical for a larger dairy.

Hemdale Farms has been milking 220 of its 700 cows with robotic milkers for almost two years. The dairy is in the process of adding eight more robot units. By the end of summer, they will be milking completely by robots.

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Can robotic milkers become as realistic of a management option as RFID and rotary parlors? Milking equipment companies think so. There are more than 12,700 robotic units in operation worldwide and more than 160 in the U.S.

“We embraced technology and high-production cows and managing cows by exception,” says Dale Hemminger, owner of Hemdale Farms. “The robotics for us just took us to the next level where the cows are managing their own schedule, and really letting cows be cows.”

Letting cows be cows doesn’t seem like it should involve robots, but then again there are no humans waving their hands, shouting and pushing cows towards a parlor holding pen. At Hemdale Farms, cows are milked when they are ready, and the wait time for milking is short.

“The No. 1 biggest surprise is how well the cows have milked on the robots,” Hemminger continues. “We were close to a 90-pound year-round herd before, and the robotic barn has been well over 90 pounds all winter. Again that’s a farm management thing. We are geared around very high production and the cost structure that’s behind that.”

One of the major reasons for the move to robots in October of 2007 was an expanding herd and a facility that needed to be updated to accommodate those cows.

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“The existing facility had lived its life, and we needed to either build an automated parlor with a lot of technology in it, or consider using robots,” says Hemminger, who went from 500 cows to 700 cows at that time. “Facing that decision, the robots became very attractive because of their ability to operate with a lot less labor, and the cows are clearly less stressed in a robotic milking barn that is properly laid out and managed.”

Hemminger cautions that there is a lot that needs to be considered before adopting this new technology.

“You really want to take time to go through the culture shock of seeing this equipment work well,” continues Hemminger, who spent five years visiting dairies in Canada and Europe to see this new technology before installing his first robot. “The management styles and cow activities in a robotic barn aren’t noticeably different, though it’s not the same large-herd group mentality. That’s the one thing, the mindset of really big herds that manage cows in groups, wouldn’t lend itself very well to the robotics.”

Another caution is the technology involved. Hemminger says you need to be committed to the technology. He says that either the owner or a key staff member needs to be able to devote some time to learning the system and how it works in order for it to be efficient. Whitney Davis, vice president of dairy equipment at Finger Lakes Dairy Services, which sold and maintains the Lely A3 robotic milking system at Hemminger’s, says that it usually takes two to three weeks of initial training with producers and then another 60 to 90 days after installation before the dairy will be running at peak performance.

Once the robots are running, that is when the labor savings come in. With the four robots that are currently milking on Hemdale Farms, only one employee is required to check on the robots while performing other duties. When the whole herd is being milked with robots, Hemminger projects they will be able to cut milking labor time significantly.

“We believe once we get the whole herd over [using robotic milkers], for every four hours we were spending milking before, we will spend one hour on robot activities,” Hemminger says.

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Perhaps the most intriguing aspect of that discussion is who would like to do the work. Hemminger has noticed that the addition of robots has enticed younger, previously uninterested laborers to succeed.

“We have been pleasantly surprised [by how attractive working with robots has been for new employees],” Hemminger says. “We have had high school students interested in milking, but they couldn’t stay that focused continually. When we first put the robots in, we had a gal that was a senior in high school that was able to act as the relief person in the robot barn and she did wonderfully. Today the relief person (the other girl since graduated and moved away) is a 15-year-old high school student. It’s a very pleasant work environment compared to milking cows.”

Hemminger says that now all the hard work that will be left is scraping stalls and crosswalk bays, but this also allows for the good cow people to observe heats and overall health.

How does it work?
Hemminger says that once a heifer calves, her colostrum is harvested and then she is walked down to the robotic barn, where she is left alone for a few hours to get used to her surroundings and doesn’t have to compete with other cows. Then a worker walks the heifer into the robot where she is offered pelleted feed.

The cows have adjusted very well, according to Hemminger, and they have had only one cow in two years refuse to be milked by robots. Eventually when all 12 robots are up and running, colostrum will be harvested in pail milkers and then it will be back to the robots.

The robots automatically keep records of SCC levels, color and consistency of milk by quarter and rejects milk automatically if it is not fit for consumption.

The feed is crucial to the success of the robots. Hemminger acknowledges that pelleted feed is more expensive, but it has been worth it. “

The nutritionist has to understand the dynamics of getting cows to want to come to the robot for the pelleted feed that’s fed,” says Hemminger. “And that’s key. You have to feed a high-energy grain in the robots. A minimum of 3 pounds a day and most people feed 6 to 10 pounds a day.”

“We built the barn thinking our feed costs were going to be higher, but because we are getting 2 to 5 pounds more milk out of these cows consistently, it has actually outcompeted the parlor barn,” Hemminger continues.

Is it for you?
Hemminger says there are many factors to consider. Robots aren’t cheap, but neither is a new parlor. If adopting robotic milkers, rations will probably need to be adjusted to include more costly ingredients, but savings from labor and culling have balanced out the increases for Hemminger’s herd. To him it comes down to accepting a new technology and what that entails.

“To me it’s not unlike learning to use a computer, like we were learning 25 years ago,” Hemminger explains. “You have to want to do it. You have to embrace the technology. You can’t just buy these and say, ‘This is going to eliminate my hired labor and I will have no new issues.’ There is a higher level of technology that you are embracing and utilizing, and if the farm owner isn’t willing to [deal with the technology], then he needs a key staff member that will." PD

Hemdale Farms does some prescheduled visits and tours of its facility. For more information about scheduling a visit, e-mail Dale Hemminger at

Progressive Dairyman
Assistant Editor
Ryan Curtis

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