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Expansion could be possible with what you already have

Rob Pol for Progressive Dairy Published on 19 July 2020

In the difficult times we are currently facing, expansion opportunities may be on hold or even canceled, but do they need to be? Could automatic milking still be the next step for your facility?

Almost everyone is thinking about how to expand their business, or at least increase profitability one way or another, and for many dairy farmers with both large and small herds, robots are becoming the solution.

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Many dairies across North America originally built a milking center connected to a freestall housing facility and have since expanded the size and number of barns and increased the number of cows to the maximum capacity of the milking center. Now that the existing facility is maxed out, robots could be a great solution for continued expansion. Adding a new robotic facility to your existing dairy, whether it’s on the same site or another site close by, could help reduce the pressure on the existing facility or serve as a way to expand your dairy in small increments with a significantly reduced up-front cost compared to a large rotary or line parlor facility designed for future herd size.

This approach can also allow you to start with a small number of robots and add on and continue to transition away from the current setup in a way that works for you. Gradually expanding into automatic milking with robots can provide a way for dairies to address growing challenges as well as prepare dairy management to succeed in a new frontier.

Many milking parlors have seen better days, and constant upkeep and repairs have farmers looking for replacement options. Robotic retrofit dairy facilities are becoming more popular all the time. Converting an existing dairy facility has numerous challenges, but finding an experienced dairy design consultant will make these hurdles easier to overcome.

In the example shown here, an existing 3,500-cow (plus or minus) facility has been converted into a robotic facility by adding lean-to structures and new, centralized milkhouse facilities. The four-row freestall barns with center feedlanes shown are the most common cow housing, but the six-row freestall also shown, as well as many other design options, can also be reconfigured to facilitate robotic milking.

There are countless considerations when converting to a robotic facility, including management style, nutrition options and many others, but cow comfort and cow flow during the construction process and once construction is completed needs to be a top priority. This example shows robot rooms built off the side of each existing group of cows, allowing full access to the existing cow transfer lanes. The addition of the robots will not interfere with the existing manure-handling and ventilation systems.

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One way to optimize cow flow through the robot is to use a toll-gate-style design where cows exit away from the area where others are waiting to enter the robot. In addition to this, a guided option only allows cows with milk permission to be in the area waiting to enter the robot.

Not only does this option reduce cows passing through the robot without milking permission, but you can also limit the number of cows in this area and, therefore, reduce stress on the animals waiting to enter the robot. In either scenario, cows exiting from the robots can exit through a post sort gate which can direct cows to a sort pen, feed alley or through a footbath. Once cows are sorted, they can be dealt with and released back to the main group or moved through transfer lanes to another area.

The example shown also depicts new milkhouses with surrounding equipment rooms, utility rooms and herd offices. The location is designed central to 24 robots to maximize efficiency for milk transport to the pick-up point and, more importantly, the ability to effectively clean the milk system.

Considerations such as the maximum size of a vacuum system and distance from pumps to the farthest robot unit must be included when designing a robotic facility. Also consider the maximum distance teat dips and cleaning chemicals can be pumped as well as availability of hot water near the robots. These items often create a need for remote equipment rooms adjacent to robots, so allow space for them in the design as well.

Whether reducing labor, increasing production or just replacing aging equipment has you thinking about a robotic solution, remember to take careful consideration in the design of your facility. Even the best robotic equipment in the world will not be able to show its potential if the cows are not able to flow through it easily and comfortably. end mark

Robert Pol is a project design specialist at DeLaval. Email Robert Pol.

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1. Lean-to addition with equipment room for robots

2. New structure between existing barns with robot rooms, milk house, equipment, office etc.

3. Existing transfer lanes to remain in place

4. Existing milking center

5. One-way gates can be added to convert cow flow from free-traffic to modified-guided cow flow

6. Self-locking headgates can be added for handling cows
at the feed table

7. Typical four-row freestall barn

8. Equipment room

9. Pre-selection gate (guided traffic)

10. Post-sort gate (guided or free traffic)

11. Commitment pen in guided traffic

12. Temporary fetch pen in free traffic

13. Robots installed in lean-to addition with little interruption to daily routines during construction

14. Typical six-row freestall barn

15. Existing special-needs facility can continue being used

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