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What’s robotic milking worth to you?

Kirt Sloan for Progressive Dairyman Published on 04 May 2017
Automitic milking system

Making the move to a robotic milking system can have a big impact on the finances of a farm as well as the well-being and quality of life of the animals and people involved.

To help producers make such an important decision, there are tools – and years of practical experience – that can be used in evaluating an investment in a robotic milking versus a conventional milking facility.

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A thorough analysis of where your operation is today and what you want to achieve in the future can help you determine how to weigh the economics of your farm’s potential performance with a robotic milking system.

It is important to remember that, first and foremost, any successful milking facility relies upon good farm management practices, and this is perhaps even more important with a robotic milking system.

Robotic milking ROI

Let’s get down to brass tacks.… If you have a 30-year-old parlor and an old freestall barn or open lot, what is the opportunity cost of this scenario? If you choose to continue milking in your parlor or build a new parlor and a new freestall barn this is, of course, a significant investment which may be better applied to automatic milking, but how so?

Both new options require a large investment, so it’s worth evaluating your current resources, management level, operational style and local conditions before making a decision.

However, after years of seeing producers struggle to weigh the economic conditions of each choice, my colleagues and I developed a return on investment tool to help farmers compare their existing facility to a new conventional facility to a new robot facility.

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This side-by-side comparison evaluates the cost per hundredweight (cwt) of each option. It calculates labor costs per cwt, feed costs per cwt, running costs and supplies per cwt, and interest and depreciation per cwt. By dissecting the various choices and inputting different barn and cow comfort conditions for your operation, you will get a picture of how automatic milking can work for you.

Cow comfort is king

From what I’ve seen in the last decade, about 60 percent of a new robotic facility’s increased milk production is the result of a well-designed barn. Cow comfort is king like never before in automatic milking.

Where the barn is oriented and how it is ventilated can affect production by 5 pounds of milk. The choice of bedding material and freestall design can also affect production, give or take, 10 pounds of milk. Other factors can be calculated in the finances of producing milk robotically, like the amount of pellets fed in a milking robot. The efficient use of labor in the barn affects the number of cows per full-time employee, which can save you $1 to $2 per cwt.

The labor equation

In my experience, when you compare a new conventional parlor and freestall barn versus a new robotic milking facility there is, in most examples, only a 20-cent-per-cwt increase in your complete cost to produce 100 pounds of milk with robots. This may be surprising, but as you know, labor – which is often reduced after robotic milking is installed – is a farmer’s second-largest expense after feed.

And this also represents fixing the cost of getting the cows milked versus conventional milking. Of course, capital interest and depreciation increase with automatic milking, but a decrease in labor costs can offset this expense.

I’ve also seen milk increase in a robotic milking facility just by the elimination of cows being put in a holding pen two to three times a day. These extra hours we save by eliminating holding pen time literally give cows those hours to use in a productive, less stressful way.

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Additionally, maintenance costs can be slightly higher with robotic milking, but consumables can be slightly less.

So what does this all mean? Simply put, you could end up spending 20 cents per cwt more versus a conventional milking system for the peace of mind that your robots will be there every day, 24-7. Not a bad trade-off, especially if you’re looking for a more flexible work schedule, too, so your time can be shifted to other productive activities.

Feeding strategies optimized

Let’s turn our focus to the effects of robotic milking on the health of the cows. We all know good management and technology are key to producing a large volume of milk. But cows are ruminants, and we need to remember what we’ve learned in the last 40 years about feeding strategies to maintain rumen health.

The ability to individually feed cows concentrates via a robotic milking system means the right cow at the right stage of lactation will receive nutrients essential to helping it maximize production. Basically, a robotic milking system is a computer feeder with a milking machine, which is a pretty simple and accurate analogy.

It is up to you and your management team to make the right decisions for your herd and your farm to maximize your opportunities with a proper feeding strategy.

Keys to facility design

Coming back to barn design and layout, there are literally as many ideas as there are farms, but some key concepts in simplicity and flexibility are proving most effective. Freestall design and cow comfort considerations, like sand bedding (which is the gold standard), can maximize performance.

However, not everyone has a ready supply of sand or the desire to deal with its abrasive characteristics on equipment. Newer freestall surfaces are a big improvement in stall softness to the cow and may be a close second to sand or deep-bedded compost.

Adequate bunk space and alley widths are also becoming more standard. It is wise to limit disruption of the milking cows and reduce the times each week you enter the barn with equipment.

Alleys need to be designed in such a way that allows equipment in and out of the barn without having to back up. (Try backing up equipment in a freestall and robot barn, and everything that can go wrong will go wrong.) Intrusive tasks like bedding maintenance and herd checks can be coordinated with system washes to minimize disruptions and take advantage of downtime during washes.

Investing in your workforce

This industry has always relied on entry-level labor to perform tasks on the farm. We have competed with scale and low inputs, and heavily relied on competitive labor rates. As this changes, the cost of labor will increase and availability will be a challenge. We have to turn jobs in agriculture into careers to retain a quality workforce.

With robotics, we can minimize the night shifts at these facilities, as the robots function in the absence of supervision and will alert supervisors when there is a problem. Think about the advantages when the majority of your employees work during the day shift. Your dairy could have a competitive advantage acquiring quality people.

Your farm’s future

Deciding to milk robotically is a big step for any dairy, but the tools are here to enhance the economic security and the peace of mind of your farm’s future. Today’s young producers are tasked with moving our industry forward and, thankfully, they have great options for designing dairies that can improve productivity and quality of life.

There is a sea of change upon us with many factors, like automation, to be considered. But most importantly, your operation should have the opportunity to remain in the capable hands of your family.  end mark

PHOTO: Before investing in an automatic milking system, analyze where your operation is today and what you want to achieve in the future. Photo courtesy of DeLaval.

Kirt Sloan is a project specialist robotics with DeLaval

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