Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Somatic cell counts: Conventional barn lessons from a robot

Nancy Charlton for Progressive Dairyman Published on 18 April 2018
Robotic milking system

Two very different ways of milking cows can teach us some of the most basic lessons for maintaining low somatic cell counts (SCC) and achieving milk quality goals.

While the routines themselves are different between automated and conventional milking, the fact remains that a routine is necessary either way.




In conventional barns and parlors, challenges with SCC begin with environmental hygiene (stalls, alleyways, packs, dry cow area), consistency in milking preparation routines, dip contact time, consistency in milking out and post-dip coverage. When the environment is cleaner, cows present to the parlor cleaner. When the environment and cows are dirtier, the preparation routine must adjust.

While it can be challenging in a parlor to ensure milkers add the extra few seconds and work to the teat-cleaning process, robotic barns teach us that extra work is better applied in housing areas, so that the cows present to the robot cleaner.

Robots have various settings for extra light, light, medium and heavy cleaning. Top-performing herds can use light and medium cleaning and achieve SCC below 200,000 cells per milliliter. Herds that present dirtier cows to the robot must use a heavy-cleaning setting or select the “clean twice” option, and still may have challenges achieving SCC goals.

This is reflected in the conventional world; if cows come to the parlor cleaner, there’s less work for milkers, and they can achieve better results. Dirtier cows add work, and if the workers are inconsistent and not adequately performing protocols, SCC levels may continue to fluctuate with the environmental bacteria challenges in the udder.

Teat prep

A robot prepares the cow the same way every time, and results from this consistency reinforce the importance of a routine in a conventional barn. While it’s a more intensive process than with robotic milking, when we can hone in on these routines and refine them in a conventional barn, we see similar results.


Farms that have clean barns and singed udders find cows are cleaned and milking units are attached with more consistent times, between 60 and 90 seconds. Dirty cows with lots of udder hair coming into a robot that hasn’t had its daily maintenance will have to increase the cleaning time, leading to increased attach times.

Udder singeing is a part of the monthly routine, and for fresh cow management on the robot, this brings the udder to the robot cleaner. Singeing is recommended in conventional barns too, but many farms opt not to do it. More hair is hanging down and carrying bedding particles and bacteria in and around the teats and teat ends.

Stall cleaning

Depending on the climate, more conventional barns use tractor scrapers. In contrast, a higher percentage of robotic barns implement automated scraping or cleaning. Some producers find more frequent automated scraping helps improve the barn environment, but there is still debate on how many times per day alleys should be cleaned.

Among health experts, concerns regard how much manure should hit cows’ feet in the scraping process versus how long manure should be allowed to build up on the floor before being removed. There’s more agreement for optimal udder health: Running a scraper more often reduces the amount of manure dragged into stalls, resulting in less teat-end contamination.

Appropriate milk-out

Some robots feature individual-quarter milking [one milk meter per quarter, with approval from International Committee for Animal Recording (ICAR) for DHI standards]. This ensures that we do not overmilk quarters. In conventional milking, particularly with 2X-milking, many farms consciously choose lower takeoff settings to ensure all quarters are milked out. As conventional farms move to 3X-milking, they are more comfortable raising settings.

In moving to robotics, the takeoff limits at a per-quarter level can easily reflect the higher levels without concern of over or undermilking. The farm manager must work with their technicians and advisers to ensure the level is correct for the farm. In the beginning of startup, takeoff settings are left at a safe level and then slowly increased to find the right level for the individual operation.


This is combined with the farm goals for milkings per day, milk produced per cow per day and, more importantly, the milk produced per robot per day. Smart pulsation allows the system to alter the pulsation ratio – the length of time the inflation is in milking position compared to the time it is in rest position – from 60-40, 65-35, 70-30 and 75-25, depending on the cow’s stage of lactation.

Monitoring udder health

Monitoring cows with udder health issues is different in robotics due to the simple fact more data is available. Data from daily reports helps manage cows individually, identifying the need for culturing or if further investigation is needed based on the protocols your herd veterinarian helps you create.


Robotic milking systems can allow farmers the time they would have traditionally used for milking to monitor and manage their cows. The design of the barn is very important, and the role of nutrition is key. When cows are flowing well, the farmer has the time to keep their finger on the pulse of the herd, checking animals with developing SCC issues early and adjusting management appropriately.

In conventional barns, more time is devoted to milking, and more challenges in the freestall barn require increased commitment during milking to ensure environmental bacteria do not increase SCC or clinical mastitis.

Owners and managers may struggle to find time to review reports, but they should devote time to training, retraining and monitoring their people. Takeoff settings are at an udder level, rather than quarter, and tools such as conductivity are not as quick to identify individual quarter issues.

Both systems have the potential for tremendous success. When switching to robotics, some bad habits in conventional milking must be addressed and changed to achieve milk quality, milk component and production goals.  end mark

PHOTO: Some lessons learned in robotic milking systems can be transferred to conventional milking systems to reduce somatic cell counts and improve milk quality. Photo courtesy of DeLaval.

Nancy Charlton
  • Nancy Charlton

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