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What it will take to get more robotic milking systems in the South

Progressive Dairyman Editor Karen Lee Published on 04 May 2018

Robotic milking was first adopted in the U.S. on a dairy farm in Wisconsin in 2000. Nearly 20 years later, the vast concentration of automated milking systems in this country remains north of the 40th parallel – the latitude line that runs across the U.S. and is marked by Kansas’ northern border – while very few systems can be found in the southern U.S.

As the biggest evolution in milking equipment seen by this generation, the adoption path of robots is running contrary to what has happened before.



“Other big evolutions, like pipelines and parlors, happened last in the North,” says Steve Pretz, director of large project sales and Dairy Pro Q sales, GEA.

He continues, “The North was probably 20 years behind in adopting milking parlors as opposed to stall barns. These types of changes just take time; they don’t happen at the same pace.”

Several reasons have been identified as to why this technology took its original foothold in the North as well as what it will take to increase its use in the South.

Proximity to Canada

Automated milking systems were first developed in Europe and then picked up by Canada’s Dutch immigrants, primarily in Ontario and Quebec.

“We started in Canada a few years before [we started in the U.S.], so a lot of support at the time was out of Canada … you start growing in pockets around that and it expands from there,” says Alfred Kamps, Northeast regional sales manager, Lely.


Farm size

The average herd size in the Northeast and Upper Midwest, where robots have the strongest adoption rate, has been historically smaller than Southern dairy states like Texas, Arizona and California.

“Herd size being smaller makes it easier to adopt previous robot technology. Your smaller farms tend to want to stay with a family labor model and, certainly, box-style robotic systems favor that,” Pretz says.

Most of the installations of automated milking systems in the past 20 years were on small farms with one to four robots and 240 cows or fewer.

“If you’re considering a major retrofit to your current milking parlor or building a new milking parlor, [robots are] probably more cost-effective, at least on investment initially, on a small farm than it is a large farm,” says Michael Brouk, a Kansas State University dairy extension specialist.

“It is cost-prohibitive once you get to a certain point,” says Jon Maughan, business development manager, Rabo AgriFinance. In his experience, he is seeing large installations at around 1,000 cows, either as a standalone operation or as an add-on to an existing conventional dairy with 5,000 cows.

Aga Perry, a dairy analyst for Rabo AgriFinance, says research done thus far has focused on 1,500 cows as a number for large herds. “Nobody really figured out how to make [robots] work with a 10,000-cow dairy,” she says.


Concentration of dairy farms

“When you go below the 40th parallel, the concentration of dairy farms is much different than it is in the Upper Midwest and in the Northeast,” Brouk says. “I think the pattern of where these robots have been installed has more to do with the concentration of dairy farms and dealerships.”

With fewer farms in the South, there is a smaller amount of equipment dealers, which are paramount to the successful adoption of automated milking.

“None of the major manufacturers are willing to install robotic milking systems without adequate support of a dealer. When you get to a lower dairy population, the ability to service these machines gets considerably more difficult,” Pretz says.

Dealer support

Automated milking is a very different style compared to conventional systems. It takes time to set up new dealers, help them restructure their business models and make sure the support structure is in place before commissioning a system on a nearby farm.

“Setting up new dealers and making sure we are able to support the dealer and the customers is something we take very seriously. So that’s why we grow slowly,” Kamps says.

The equipment companies have to have dealerships trained in the installation of robots as well as the service.

“There is a fair bit of technical training involved. We take that seriously with all levels of certification involved,” he adds.

With conventional parlors, there are a lot of parts that can be kept on-farm and service done by farmers themselves. This can be done to a certain extent with robotic systems too, but there are also things that can happen where a trained technician is needed.

“Some things can be done remotely,” Brouk says, “but if the system’s down, you need somebody there sooner, not later. As long as you keep up the maintenance, that’s going to be rare, but when it happens, you need somebody who’s close.”

It is recommended to have a dealer within three hours of a robotic farm for this reason. With fewer dealers in the South, this can be a challenge in some areas.

Seasonal effect on cash flow

The summer heat in the southern U.S. can be problematic from a lending perspective, as cash flows are not constant throughout the year and can hinder the ability to make payments during low times.

“With our clients in Florida for example, regardless of size, we see substantial drops in production in the summer as opposed to winter,” Perry says.

Farm style

Most dairies in the North are confined housing systems, which makes the transition to robots easier than what would be needed for the open-lot dairies in the Southwest or the grazing systems in the Southeast.

“Particularly for the box-style robotic system, you have to have a setup with housing of the animal to keep them close to the robot itself. Pasture-based farming, even a freestall barn with corrals or exercise lots, make it much more difficult to utilize robotic milking box style,” Pretz says.

The development of automated accessories to rotary parlors and even a fully robotic rotary are options to help these farms adopt robotic milking.

The first robotic rotary parlor in the U.S. was recently installed on a farm in Wisconsin, and Pretz says they have some units sold to larger farms in the South as well.


The main driver for robotic adoption on smaller dairies is flexibility, lifestyle and quality of life. It can reduce or even eliminate the need for hired labor and free up the owner to be more efficient as a manager as opposed to a milker.

“The returns on investments for these farms where you take the family operator’s labor off of milking and into managerial type of functions really helps,” Perry says.

Owners of larger dairies are already at the point where they can spend time managing or take time off because they have employees to handle daily tasks like milking.

Perry has seen farmers in some parts of the country, particularly Washington, struggle with labor supply. That has propelled them to take an earlier interest in robotics to mitigate the risk of not having employees show up to milk the cows.


For small farms looking at retrofitting a facility with one to four robots, the investment can be comparable to building a new parlor. However, it is a bigger jump for larger farms that would require a high number of milking units.

“The initial investment is a very high cost of entry for a lot of producers, especially with the current market situation; making that huge of a leap for some of them is more difficult than trying to attract more labor,” Perry says.

Current market situation

The depressed dairy market, along with national and international economic insecurities, has put robotic adoption on standby throughout the country.

“I saw a lot of interest in robots in 2016 and 2017; however, with current milk prices in 2018, a lot of these projects have been delayed a little bit as farmers are a little bit nervous,” says Francisco Rodriguez, integrated robotics manager, DeLaval Inc.

While producers are waiting, Rodriguez sees it as the perfect opportunity for companies to grow their dealership base and support network in areas with interest so they can be ready when market conditions improve.

Advantage in timing

There is an advantage to not being the first in adopting new technologies. Farms in the South will be able to learn from similar production systems already in place in the North.

“There is already a lot of common knowledge around robotics, so when we are going to new territories, our dealers are learning from other dealers, and dairymen can tour several facilities that range in size, scale and management styles,” Rodriguez says.

New dealers are able to learn what needs to be done and how it needs to be done. Farm advisers, such as nutritionists and veterinarians, can also learn from the support programs already in place.

“Dairies from the get-go are achieving credible milk production,” he says, citing a new robotic dairy system in California that, two months after start-up, is already in the upper 90s for milk production and seeing great somatic cell counts.

Plan for growth

From previous installations, the industry has learned robots can work in retrofit scenarios, which might facilitate faster adoption of the technology.

“When you retrofit a facility, as long as there are no major limitations or no limitations in cow comfort, it is going to be cheaper to go to robotics rather than building completely new,” Rodriguez says.

Another way he sees robot adoption by large farms is to expand incrementally. Instead of having to replicate what is already in place, by adding a second 100-stall rotary and 4,000-cow barn for instance, the farm could grow in smaller amounts by adding 500 or 700 more cows in a new robot barn while continuing to use the existing parlor.

“Some large dairies are transitioning and calving in parlors, and then they move them later on to the robots,” he says.

There is interest in robotics all across the country. By building upon the knowledge already garnered in the North and seeing more large herds adopt the technology, it will continue to grow and spread throughout the southern U.S.

“There’s no doubt it’s the future, essentially everywhere,” Pretz says.  end mark

Karen Lee
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