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Large farms must overcome learning curve in milking with robots

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 30 September 2016

Early adopters of automatic milking systems have primarily been farms with 240 cows or less. According to Jack Rodenburg of DairyLogix, there are “probably less than 60 dairies worldwide with more than 500 cows and traditional single-box robots.”

However, more and more large farms are showing interest. Rodenburg and Jouni Pitkaranta, CowHomes Finland, have been studying how these larger farms are making robotics work for them.

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At a presentation at the Progressive Dairy Operators Triennial Dairy Symposium, March 21-23 in Toronto, Ontario, the pair shared the benefits and challenges they see with this milking style on a larger scale.

“Most of the single-box robots that have been sold in North America so far are sold to smaller herds and sold on the lifestyle benefits: more flexible hours, less physically demanding work, a safe workplace, innovative. I don’t think some of the 500-cow herds care one hoot about that. You’re not going to sell the lifestyle benefits on these large dairies,” Rodenburg said.

Large-herd operators will more likely be drawn to the change of workforce, needing a smaller set of skilled workers compared to a large amount of laborers.

After visiting a dozen large robotic operations, Rodenburg said those farms are seeing 20 to 40 percent savings in labor hours compared to their previous parlor operation. This results in a 15 to 30 percent savings in labor cost because even though there are fewer people, they tend to make more per hour due to their skill set.

Other potential benefits include:

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  • Improved cow comfort with no trips to stressful holding pens. “That’s a big, big benefit that I think we need to consider more when we make these decisions. I think that’s going to give you higher milk production,” Rodenburg said.

  • Higher milk production. Pitkaranta cited consistency and the comfort of staying in the barn as some of the reasons why production increases.

  • Reduced feed cost by feeding according to production and stage of lactation with use of the robot.

  • The cow has more freedom, which the public loves. “This is my social license to produce milk long into the future because I’m going to have happy customers that like what I’m doing,” he said.

Along with the benefits, there are challenges. While adopting a new milking style is never easy, the pair mentioned several specific areas that pose challenges for farms of a larger size.

Barn layout

After visiting six large robot farms (with eight or more robots per farm) in Germany, the U.S. and Denmark, Pitkaranta said the typical barn layout consists of a feed alley down the center where a partial mixed ration (PMR) is delivered via tractor and mixer one or two times a day.

The pens are two robot groups with three or four rows of freestalls. About half of the farms used free-flow traffic while the other half had guided traffic.

Each pen had its own separation area, and the barn had a single special treatment area for hoof treatment or other handling. Most of the farms had calving and dry cows in separate buildings.

Two of the farms were very different from the others. A farm in the U.S. had eight robots, with only one robot per group. Once again, the feed alley was in the center of the barn and the robots were spread around the barn.

“In thinking about this barn, there weren’t any separation areas. You couldn’t separate [cows with the use of] the robots at all. The importance of headlocks was very big. All treatments were being done in headlocks,” Pitkaranta said.

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He noted that fetching was quite easy because the cows were kept in small groups, no more than 60 cows per group. Yet the layout did lead to a lot of employee walking because the robots were so spread out.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, a farm in Denmark had 12 robots with two in a separate calving and fresh cow barn, two in a pen for heifers and eight robots for one large group.

“It was very interesting to see how this huge group actually works,” Pitkaranta said.

There were seven rows of freestalls, and all eight robots were at one end of the barn. “Robot management was quite easy because all of the robots were close to each other,” he said, mentioning it resulted in less employee walking.

However, fetching cows from a group of 395 was very challenging.

In this large group, the cows had to walk a longer distance to the robot, which may impact their number of visits. Pitkaranta noted that with an average of 50 cows per robot, the visits here were still at a rather high level.

The large group setting could possibly hinder the performance of timid cows, he added.

Rodenburg suggested the ideal layout for large robot farms is in modular barn sections with each section as a 240-cow area for two groups of 120 cows and perimeter feeding. Behind the two robots is a separation area with eight stalls and a central handling area. He said this could be duplicated and placed so walking for herdsmen is at a minimum.

Grouping

In the six farms Pitkaranta visited, cows were grouped by age, stage of lactation or both.

Rodenburg said, “Robot utilization is generally best with a mix of high- and low-producing cows at all stages of lactation, so grouping by stage of lactation or production levels is probably not that practical.”

He mentioned that most large herds will group by age and have separate groups for first-lactation and older cows. He has also seen herds with a group for staph cows or high-SCC cows to minimize the spread of mastitis in the herd.

Pitkaranta suggested identifying timid cows and putting them in a separate group.

Transition cows

Farms that have a parlor and robots tend to milk fresh cows in the parlor and allocate them to robot groups between 10 and 20 days after calving, Rodenburg said, whereas farms with only robots generally dedicate one robot to 45 fresh and lame cows, so that it’s not as busy and allows more time for frequent visits. The cows are moved to other groups at 10 to 20 days fresh.

Herd size does need to be large enough to be able to dedicate a single robot for 45 cows early in the fresh period.

“I suggest don’t ever move a cow between 20 and 150 days in milk. So the fresh group is going to work from 500 cows and up. If you are less than 500 cows, then the fresh group should be a small group behind the robot that is used by other cows as well,” he said.

Cow handling

Using headlocks as the only method for cattle handling is not efficient in robot barns, Rodenburg said. However, they are very useful for things like herd vaccinations and flaming udders, where a large number of cows are treated at once.

Individual treatments, such as breeding, reproductive exams, vaccination, hoof trimming, mastitis treatments, etc., are best to be done in a separation area.

He suggested separation areas with three or four freestalls per robot with access to working chutes for individual handling. That is smaller than what Rodenburg recommends for smaller herds because he envisions large herds are more likely to have a herdsman checking these pens more frequently (within an hour).

Hoof health

“The big issue with foot health in big barns is: The longer you make the scraper run, the more manure you have in front of the scraper. You end up with a clean barn but lots of filthy feet and hoof issues. That’s going to be a big problem in large robot barns,” Rodenburg said.

He noted that several larger robot barns he has visited have added a tube scraper, which has a 2-inch gap and a 2-foot rectangular pipe below the floor. There is a square paddle in the pipe underneath the scraper that helps shuttle manure to the end of the barn through the pipe.

Labor

In 2014-2015, Pitkaranta conducted a private paid international survey of 44 farms with one to eight robots. The survey results indicated farms were producing 300 to 2,050 pounds of milk per manhour (including all daily work from milking and dry cows to youngstock). On the six large farms he recently visited, they had 1,100 to 2,300 pounds of milk per manhour.

Compared to smaller farms, large robot dairies will have more groups, which means more time used for moving animals. In addition, the distances are increased and more time goes to nonproductive walking.

“One person commented that in an eight-hour shift, they spent two hours just walking,” Pitkaranta said.

Finding the right use of time for each employee is going to be a challenge for larger farms. On most large farms, Rodenburg said there are herdsmen who are in charge of robot care and cow management.

They spend their shift traveling from group to group, checking robots and treating separated cows. Then there are lower-paid laborers that clean stalls and add bedding.

On most farms, he said he saw the skilled workers fetching cows – but questions if that could be taught to the people already walking the pens to clean stalls.

It is still very early for large farms adopting robotic milking and many of these challenges will be solved over time by the dairy producers already using this technology and consultants, like Pitkaranta and Rodenburg, working with them.

“I see a bright future for single-box robot milking in large herds because it saves labor and improves your labor culture. It’s modular and simple to manage. It improves cow comfort and health, and it has the potential to improve feed and milking efficiency through things like dynamic management,” Rodenburg said.  end mark

Karen Lee
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