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How to realize the goal of reduced labor with robots

Maria Woldt for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2016
Why robots may not bring the labor efficiencies a dairy farmer is seeking

Dairying is labor-intensive. Probably the most labor-intensive sector of agriculture. Hours are long, vacations are rare, and you miss out on time with family and friends.

It comes with the territory, and most people in dairy understand and accept this reality.

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Robotic milking systems are nothing new – the concept began development in the 1980s and was commercially available around 2000. Farms that adopt robotic milking do so as a means to reduce overall labor.

“Robots can lead to a 30 to 40 percent reduction in labor,” said Jack Rodenburg during a seminar at the 2015 World Dairy Expo.

Rodenburg owns and operates DairyLogix and travels the globe consulting on barn design and herd management with robotic milking systems. Prior to starting DairyLogix, Rodenburg was a dairy systems specialist with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture and Food.

The promise of reduced labor is intriguing, but without the right barn design and cow management, robots won’t help farms realize this goal.

Why robots fail to reduce labor

According to Rodenburg, there are three main reasons why a robotic system might fail to increase efficiency: failure to sort cows properly, failure to provide for special-needs cows and failure to account for social behavior in cows.

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Proper barn design that takes each of these areas into account will lead to greater efficiency and overall labor reduction.

“Ultimately, cows have to go to the robot on their own, and you need to create an environment where they are happy to do that,” said Rodenburg.

Without humans milking and moving cows by hand, problems can occur from improper traffic patterns – such as sore feet.

“Healthy feet are absolutely critical in a robot barn,” he said. “There is published research that says you get more visits and you have fewer fetch cows if you reduce lameness issues.”

Design for timid cows

In a robot barn, holding pens and overall layout need to be designed with your lowest-ranking cows in mind. The boss cows are going to push their way to where they need to go no matter what, but timid cows will refuse to visit the robot if they are intimidated or uncomfortable. Increased refusals mean even more foot problems and metabolic disorders.

“The area in front of the robot needs to be very large. It needs to be at least 20 feet of open space,” Rodenburg said. “A timid cow can wait here confidently and disappear in several directions depending on where the boss cow is.”

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Even with proper layout, if cows are still not visiting the robot, there is probably something wrong and timely treatment is critical. The best solution, according to Rodenburg, is to sort “fetch cows” (cows you need to bring to the robot) post-milking into their own pen that is designed for special needs yet still has access to the robot.

Design and management basics

An important element of a successful robot farm is gate design. Rodenburg recommends that gates be laid out in such a way that one person – alone – can sort cattle effectively.

“You need to design the gating so that one person can move a cow from anywhere to anywhere at will,” he said.

Proper gating also keeps the cows calm, and they have a tendency to move slower.

The next important design aspect is group handling space. Most robot barns will use headlocks for herd health and breeding. However, most headlocks are 24 inches, and they are too small for Holstein cows, leading to empty spaces in the row (wasted space).

“As an industry, we need to stop buying 24-inch headlocks. We need to manufacture and buy 27- or 28-inch headlocks,” Rodenburg said.

From a management standpoint, using a tractor to scrape the alley is not recommended because it disrupts cow traffic and creates undue stress. Automatic alley scrapers are the best for a robot barn; however, Rodenburg actually recommends running the scrapers less often in order to keep the cows’ feet cleaner.

“Alley scrapers result in a lot of clean barns with cows with filthy feet,” he said. “Essentially you’ve got a manure bath that runs through your barn 7 to 8 times per day.”

Free traffic vs. forced traffic

Unlike a barn or parlor situation where cows are moved to the milking area by hand, cows in a robot barn enter the milking area on their own. In the absence of people moving cows where they need to go, herd dynamics take over and become the most important design consideration.

Free-traffic barns are designed as the name implies, and cows have the freedom to enter the robot or access feed and water as they choose. In this situation, the pelleted feed in the robot needs to be of exceptional quality because it’s the only thing that will entice the cow to enter on her own.

“Free-traffic barns have more large areas with multiple escape routes, which is better for timid cows,” Rodenburg said. “When the cows are allowed to go where they want, they spend less time on their feet and more time resting.”

Forced-traffic barns only allow cows access to feed and water after they have gone through the robot. Rodenburg points out that in this situation, there are fewer fetch cows, but there are often more herd dynamic issues that cause delays, which lead to more time standing and waiting to be milked. Increased time standing can lead to feet problems and fatigue.

In both a free- and forced-traffic barn scenario, the direction the robot faces is an important factor.

“Basically, we all started thinking that the cow rested and then got up to be milked and then went to eat because that is what she did in the parlor,” he said. “But if the cow has the freedom to do what she wants, she actually gets up from resting, has a drink of water and something to eat and then goes to the robot.”

Because of this, robots don’t need to face the manger; they should actually face the freestalls – and with multiple robots, they should face the same direction, ideally beside a large crossover.

Final words of wisdom

Robots can reduce labor, but there are numerous considerations with regard to barn design – because it’s no longer about what’s best for the farmer. In a successful robot barn, everything is done according to the cow’s natural instincts.

“You have to be the coach who teaches the cows to do it on their own,” said Rodenburg.

The farmer creates an environment with herd dynamics in mind but trains the cows to use cutting-edge technology.

Rodenburg recommends that big equipment in the barn be eliminated or kept to a minimum because it disrupts the cows. He also suggests that farms run their robots under capacity.

“I know they are expensive, but if you want to get 100 to 110 pounds of milk per cow, don’t put 70 cows on the robot,” he said. “There is a point where the overall stress on the cows and you starts to go up incrementally.”  PD

To learn more about successful robot barn design or to contact Jack Rodenburg, go to Dairy Logix.

Maria Woldt is a freelance writer based out of Wisconsin.

PHOTO: Rodenburg identifies three reasons why robots may not bring the labor efficiencies a dairy farmer is seeking: failure to sort cows properly, failure to provide for special-needs cows and failure to account for cows’ social behavior. Photo by Peggy Coffeen.

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