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Robot barns: Retrofit or build new?

Whitney Davis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 March 2019

For dairies considering robotic milking, one common question often asked is whether it is best to build a new barn or retrofit an existing one. The answer, typically, is: “It depends.” I suggest your answer be based on which scenario offers the best return on investment, meets the goals of the dairy (especially for tomorrow) and satisfies the budget.

Obviously, a new barn is needed for additional housing for a growing herd or if you’re substantially overcrowded now. A new barn also has the obvious advantage in that it can built to be exactly what you want, if the budget allows.

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Before we dig deeper into this question, let’s define the term “robotic.” For this article, “robots or robotic” refers to traditional single-box robots, where cows are milked voluntarily, having been trained and incentivized to do so, with intervention for only the few exceptions.

Working closely with our robot dairy farm customers in central and western New York, our dairy equipment dealership has designed and implemented numerous styles and combinations of robot installations in the past 12 years. While these have been both new barns and retrofits, presently approximately 60 percent of our 165 installed robots operate in retrofitted barns. While these barns share some design concepts to utilize proven standards, many of them are unique. The good news here is: There are a number of ways to make robots work well in an existing barn.

Consider if a barn renovation is feasible

Determine feasibility by evaluating these questions:

  • What is the age and condition of the existing barn? Older barns sometimes sacrifice cow comfort with shorter beds, less lunge space, lower ceilings, and narrow crossovers and alleys. If this is the case, cows may realize less resting time, greater heat stress and more hoof health problems.

  • Is the barn insulated? While this is not required, it does provide added benefits for milk production in both the summer and the winter. Additionally, it is more energy-efficient and easier to manage robots on the coldest winter days if they are in an insulated barn.

  • Will the building provide adequate snow load protection? Lately, we have seen significant wet, heavy snowfalls. Determine the cost of these improvements if they are needed.

  • What is the condition of the building’s infrastructure (plumbing, electrical, concrete, manure system/equipment, etc.)? Are any of these necessary items lacking, substandard or limiting capacity?

  • How is the ventilation? Are there automated curtains and fan controls? Again, what will it cost to upgrade?

It is wise to have an experienced builder and other relevant professionals give their opinion. I have seen instances where a retrofit might cost almost as much as a new barn and yet not provide the same level of advantages.

Important concepts to include

Since we want cows to go to and from the robots willingly, on their own and unimpeded by herdmates, we need to ensure good, open cow traffic. We need sufficient open space in front of the robots and adequate cow crossover lanes. We design barns to reduce cow traffic congestion, clogged alleys and boss cows limiting traffic. We make sure feedbunk width and direct access to it is optimized, and we look to benefit timid cows. Labor efficiency should always be a top consideration.

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While not a requirement, it is highly recommended to employ automated manure-handling equipment. Compared to a skid steer, the benefits are reduced costs for labor, equipment and fuel. More importantly, it keeps the barn cleaner (more frequent cleaning) and with less noise and interruption so cows will more readily visit the robots. Alley scrapers are the most common system used, and the newer chain models are much improved over older cable systems. Another option is a robotic manure vacuum unit to clean the alleys. This system is very quiet and unobtrusive to the cows.

Where do we position robots in a retrofit?

With our goals to provide optimal labor efficiency, good cow traffic and feedbunk access, our challenge is to do so while minimizing the number of existing cow stalls sacrificed when retrofitting. One common placement is to have the robots on an exterior wall of the barn, parallel to the existing alleys. This allows for clean access to the robot rooms from the outside (both sides of the barn in a center drive-through) and minimal hand cleaning of manure on the robot platform.

Other times it may make sense for robots to be located perpendicular to the alleys in the exiting head-to-head stall or crossover area. Other possibilities exist and are best determined by the specifics of the facility, budget, herd size and management.

Robots should be placed where they can be easily accessed (ideally without people walking through manure) for management purposes of both cows and equipment. What is out of sight and hard to reach is often out of mind. While the robots work 24-7, they require five to 10 minutes per day of cleaning and other basic system checks. If it’s easy to do, it gets done.

If we remove some stalls to make these changes, we need to make sure the right cow numbers are maintained to maximize the efficiency of the robots. Often the existing barn can be lengthened (one end or the other, or both) to make up for stalls lost elsewhere.

Sometimes we get even more creative with robot placement. One of our customers located the robots in the center of the feed drive alley. Here the robots are positioned in tandem on two sides and serve both sides of the barn, yet are all in one robot room. This dairy backs the feed mixer in from both ends of the barn and employs robotic feed pushers. This design allows for one centralized location (easier to manage) versus two robot rooms on opposite sides of the barn.

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Another customer was able to fit the robots in the existing parlor holding area where electric, water, manure drainage and other infrastructure was already located. This design saved them the cost of adding these necessary amenities elsewhere, and we were able to have cows continue to access the parlor while robot installation took place.

You don’t have to figure this out yourself

The retrofit design conversation is a team approach, and I encourage the use of specialists as needed. Our dealership has experienced barn design and robot herd management professionals who work with our current and prospective customers to develop robot barn layout options. We have a number of progressive conversations to discuss the pros and cons of different layout and structure possibilities. Using satellite imagery, we generate computer drawings of the overall farmstead. Inside barn layouts are also created to visualize the proposed changes and make it easy to revise as plans evolve.

I highly recommended dairy producers considering robotic milking visit numerous existing robot barns to see and hear what others have done and, most importantly, how well it works and for how long. An idea that sounds good but has not been proven is a theory. Be careful that somebody’s theory does not become your expensive research project because it doesn’t meet your goals. It may take time to reach your decision. Take the time. After all, isn’t it better to build it right than build it fast?

It pays to do your homework

Because you are making a sizable investment, and you will use what you build for years to come, it is always a good idea to spend your time planning and researching before you spend your money. Challenge yourself and experienced professionals by asking tough questions and using forward thinking. We all know this industry is changing rapidly. What does the future hold for your dairy business?

Consider future animal welfare requirements, public perception, labor needs/costs/availability and environmental concerns. Build your barn for tomorrow, and consider that what worked in the past might not be the best solution to survive and compete in the future. A well-designed plan pays big dividends.  end mark

Finger Lakes Dairy Services has been a Lely robot dealer since 2007. Whitney Davis has more than 25 years experience in milking equipment, project design, systems management and equipment investment analysis.

Whitney Davis
  • Whitney Davis

  • Robotic Systems Specialist
  • Finger Lakes Dairy Services
  • Email Whitney Davis

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