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Retrofitting milking robots into existing facilities requires careful planning

Rick Rugg for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 October 2017
Robot barn design

When the time came for brothers Chad and Brent Koopman, Epworth, Iowa, to take the reins of the second-generation dairy farm from their dad and uncle, they recognized changes were imminent.

They wanted to keep investment costs within a budget they felt comfortable with while still utilizing their existing freestalls and milkhouse. Brent Koopman had some firsthand experience with automated milking systems while attending college. In addition, the brothers toured a variety of different barns with robots.



As a result, the decision was clear to the brothers: Milking robots retrofitted into their existing facility was a realistic goal.

The Koopmans initially began investigating the milking robot solution to provide more flexibility within the farming operation and to help the cows reach their full genetic potential. Before the transition, the brothers worked closely with their local equipment dealer, Eastern Iowa Dairy Lely Center, on the planning process.

See more of the Koopman Dairy in this slideshow.

The team effort helped determine the best design for retrofitting two robots into the existing facility. Additional dealer support involved installation meetings, start-up protocols and herd management software education. This planning process is essential when transitioning from the conventional ways of milking to the robot way of milking, managing and taking care of cows.

“It was a lot of pre-planning, but it went very smoothly,” Brent Koopman says.


Since the June 2015 transition of retrofitting their barn to accommodate two automatic milking systems and an automatic feed pusher, the Koopmans report seeing improvement both in the overall health and production of their herd.

“It has really made a difference,” Koopman says. “We have higher production, and our cows are healthier than they were before.”

Implementing a robotic milking system creates a new lifestyle for the cow and the cow owner. Contrary to popular belief, robotic milking will work in many, if not most, existing dairies. The goal needs to include optimizing the design for improved cow traffic flow, cow comfort, stall management and the overall success of the facility for both cow and dairy producer.

Cow flow is essential to a successful retrofitted robot barn design. One way to think of it is: The barn is the home of the dairy cow, and the cow needs a clear and easy path to go to work, which is the robot.

If the area around the robot is crowded and the cow flow is congested, the cows will have “traffic jams” on their way to work and, just like humans, the cows will become frustrated and not get to work in a timely manner.

The end game is to make sure the most timid cows in the barn have the ability to enjoy the trip to work, enjoy their meals, enjoy the trip to drink water and, finally, to enjoy the beds they are sleeping and resting in.


By designing your barn layout with the cow in mind, you will create a calm and stress-free environment conducive to cow health and well-being. This, in turn, enhances the probability of increased milk yield and improved milk quality.

Because cows produce best when operating on their own “natural biorhythm,” it is essential to provide a cow-flow system that mimics that rhythm. It will also reduce actual milking labor, which allows that labor to be supplemented in other areas in the dairy operation.

Free-flow traffic allows cows to drink, eat, milk and lie down without disturbance of gates. To ensure your barn layout is optimized for cow traffic to the robot, here are 10 checkpoints you can use to evaluate your robot barn design.

Checkpoints to consider with robot barn design

1. Distances at exit/entrance of the robot

Sufficient space for the cows to move around in the barn is one of the main components of successful robotic milking. This is especially important in the area around the robot where cows are entering and exiting. Cows need to enjoy the experience when entering and exiting a robot, as well as the actual milking process.

A decent rule of thumb would be a minimum space of 15 feet from the robot to the first obstacle in front of the robot. This will allow a timid, low-ranking cow a greater opportunity to enjoy its experience entering and exiting the robot.

2. Manure and stall management (scraping, slats, etc.)

Consider what manure system you would like to work with and what will work best in your barn. Proper manure management and stall management is an important step when setting your individual milk quality goals.

Keeping alleys and cross alleys clean as well as maintaining clean and dry beds will certainly go a long way toward maintaining a healthy herd with high milk quality standards. Labor needed to support manure and stall management is also something to consider and discuss in the barn design phase.

3. Grouping cows

When working with different groups, it is important the existing social hierarchy within a group is not disrupted. The best results, as far as labor and milk production are concerned, are achieved on farms where cows remain in the same group throughout their complete lactation.

When enough cow numbers and groups are available, special consideration can be given to separating the first-calf heifers from second-or-greater-lactation cows. This practice has yielded production improvements on the first-calf heifer groups. Do not underestimate the reality of the social hierarchy within a group of cows, especially in the milking robot world.

4. Moving cows into and out of pens or groups

Make sure careful consideration is given when deciding how to move cows into and out of a group. Safe and efficient cow flow is a must with an optimal barn layout. Utilizing gates, cow alleys, cross alleys, etc., needs consideration when moving cows.

Think about how you will enter a cow into a group from the calving area and then how you will move the cow into the dry cow pen once it has completed its lactation. This can save time and prevent stress for both the cow and people.

5. Plenty of water troughs

Installation of water troughs along the route cows use to come and go from the robot is always a good thing. Easy access with plenty of space around the water trough will encourage the cows to drink as much as they please while not disturbing other cows from coming and going to the milking robot.

A cow that has just been milked likes to drink water in order to restore the osmotic balance. Proper location of water troughs will ensure each and every cow has a pleasant experience while drinking water.

6. How to find and treat cows (farmer, breeder, vet, etc.)

When laying out separation pens along with treatment areas, there are a few goals to keep in mind. Make sure it is easy for a cow to enter the separation pen from the robot when it is determined a cow touch is needed. Access to feed and water is always a good thing once the cow is separated into a separation pen.

Think about how you want to touch the cow for the treatment event. Most separation pens are designed with headlocks or some sort of treatment chute that makes it easy for one person to perform the treatment.

Once the cow touch is completed, make sure it is a one-person job to return the cow to the general population with little disruption to other cows. If an overnight stay is needed, careful consideration should be given to how cow flow will take place from the separation pen to the milking robot and back.

7. Footbath position

Cows with healthy hooves feel good and are more productive. By implementing a footbath, cows will be encouraged to visit and eat more at the feedbunk, and milk more often in the milking robot due to healthier feet. Footbaths can be installed in various places in the barn.

Most footbaths are installed away from the robots and many producers choose to install them in a crosswalk opposite of where the robots are installed. This will lead to limited disturbance around the robot during footbath use.

8. Ventilation in the barn (mechanical/natural)

Healthy cows and achieving production goals are closely related in barns that have decent fresh air movement. Sufficient fresh air is necessary for the removal of humidity and body heat. Make sure air movement is considered when determining the best location for the robot room.

9. Clean, safe access to the robot room

Consideration needs to be given as to how a person will enter and exit the robot room. Walking through a manure-filled cow alley is strongly discouraged, as keeping the inside of a robot room clean is important for maintaining a healthy environment for desirable milk quality.

Think about the easiest and cleanest passage possible when determining where the robot room will be installed. It is equally important you provide a safe and easy passage to the cows once inside the robot room. Installing boot washers by all doors leading into or out of a robot room is highly recommended. This will go a long way toward maintaining a clean robot room.

10. Budget

An investment into robotic technology needs to make sense for each producer. It requires cash flow, which is why you want to double- and triple-check your assumptions for accuracy. How much milk is harvested out of each robot every 24 hours needs to be a real number based on your individual management style.

Reality versus wishful thinking can be the difference between a robot barn that experiences successful cash flow versus a robot barn that does not. Exceeding expectations is always a good thing.

Producers should tour as many robot dairies as they can during the planning process. It does not matter which brand of automated milking system a barn has, the touring will help educate you on the pros and cons of different designs and assist you in determining the best fit for you and your cows.  end mark

ILLUSTRATION: Image courtesy of Lely.

Rick Rugg
  • Rick Rugg

  • Midwest Regional Manager
  • Lely North America
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