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How we milk 3 times a day with robots for success

Ian Gallacher for Progressive Dairy Published on 24 May 2021

Editor’s note: This article is the first in a four-part series about how an Oregon dairy farmer is making robots work on a grazing system.

Labor needs drove us to buy milking robots. The systems are complex, costly and kept our farm open. But we almost closed when we got started.

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The first month, the system went down 108 times. That grazing season we saw milking frequency dipping to 1.2 per cow per day for weeks and had to cull cows. By late August, we were shipping 28 pounds of milk. Eventually, annual reports showed six-figure repair bills for our system as a whole. We were scared.

But we put our faith in God and tried. It’s taken us three years to get our system working well.

As of this writing, it’s mid-March 2021, and total man hours required on our 120-cow farm are now less than eight per day. Approximately 40% of our dry matter intake (DMI) is from grazing. Self-motivated cow flow in the barn is excellent, and we have an average of 3.4 milkings today. The cows take in the grain we are targeting, and this week our organic Jersey cows are producing 5.1% fat with 54 pounds of milk at 190 days in milk (DIM). Thanks be to God.

We don’t have every answer. Every farm is different. Needs, goals, skills and resources will define what works for you. I’m being vague about our brand of robot on purpose, as there are multiple brands and dealers across the country. I’m a farmer, not a salesman, and I have a background in software design and management. I want to speak to general principles we’ve learned hands-on that have produced results. My hope is to save you money and time.

At our farm, folks come to see what might work for them. And we go over four things: a 3X milking system in the barn, diagnosing and doing repairs to keep it running, keeping forage coming throughout the grazing season and 3X milking with robots while grazing.

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Robotic milking systems are a big change. It’s not the parlor. You don’t get cows and bring them to a holding area to milk. A robot can only milk one cow at a time and needs to do that 24-7. You don’t want to fetch cows 24-7, nor have them stand waiting their turn for 24 hours.

The stick won’t work anymore. Cow flow will.

Put food in one place, water in another and an electronic gate in between that cows can choose to walk through anytime they want, and you’ve created cow flow. You can apply rules at that gate that send cows to water or to milk. Now you’ve created the opportunity to milk. That’s your job as a robotic dairy farmer.

The more times they go round the circuit, the more chance cows get in the robot to eat grain and give milk. Having the ability to modulate that frequency up and down is the first step to success.

By using carrots such as food, water, grain and pasture access, in conjunction with one-way and electronic gates that you can enforce rules with, you can keep your cows walking a circuit all day and night to get what they want when they want it. And that gets you what you need: calm cows and low-labor milk production.

Figure 1 shows that circuit in our barn.

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shows that circuit in our barn

Using that circuit and rules at the electronic gates, we train springing heifers before they come fresh. At 60 days out, we put them in the dry cow alley, and they start to go through electronic gates. At three weeks out, we put them in the robot waiting area twice a day. The only way out of that area is through a robot. At first they’re timid, but eventually they fight their way to the front of the line, go in, eat some grain, get their teats sprayed and go through an electronic gate to get back to the close-up cow area. When they calve, it’s just one more step for them to milk.

Before we started training, timid springers would stand back in the waiting area and not milk. If 25% of your herd is fresh heifers, it’s a problem if their milk production is 50% of potential.

To make these processes work, we adapted our parlor and existing barn to robots. It took time. You add one thing, see how that works, tweak, add another. You’re learning to optimize cow flow and minimize labor needs. And you have to be willing to scrap it when things are wrong.

If you have the ability to start from scratch and build a custom barn tailored to robotic milking, there are good designs out there that provide flow from day one. I suggest one-way traffic and guided flow to minimize cow fetching and achieve 3X milking.

When I say 3X milking, it’s important to know that’s an average. With 3X, some cows are milking five times, others are milking once.

Once is bad. If an udder being stimulated to produce milk isn’t cleaned out regularly, but just periodically, it will tend toward infection. If udder stimulation is stopped, a cow will start to dry off.

Table 1 shows our daily report on milking frequency, grain intake and milk production. In the report, we use red for bad, yellow for caution and green for good.

dairy report on milking frequency, grain intake and milk production

We can change rules at the electronic sort gates to help turn red to green by increasing visits to the robot by those cows falling behind. The report shows milking robots are grain feeders that milk. Cows milking more frequently are eating more grain and producing more milk.

How much grain a cow eats in our robot is a bit tricky, though. With our brand of robot, you can set up feed tables in the software, a dispense rate and a max per visit amount that she can eat relative to the feed table max per day that she can get. Those combined determine how much grain a cow can get in the robot per day – if she keeps her head down in the feed bowl.

Our Jerseys consume about 4 pounds of rolled corn and barley during a six-minute milking time. If we offer more, it’s on the floor or she stands to lick the bowl for 10 minutes while milking capacity goes down.

So if you’re hoping to support a level of milk production that requires 12 pounds of grain, but she will only consume 4 pounds per visit, two visits won’t meet your production goals.

We’ve talked about using cow flow to create 3X milking, which will drive intake of grain and support better milk production. Figure 2 shows the summary screen of our farm management software.

Summary screen of our farm management software

It features four stats we watch closely: milking frequency, grain intake, milk production and gate passages. When gate passages go up, the others tend to as well within about 24 hours.

This is why cow flow is so important. It drives opportunities to milk, which increases grain intake and milk production across your herd.

In our next article in this robotic milking system series, we’ll talk about challenges in learning how to diagnose problems and repair them. If your robot isn’t running, it’s not feeding or milking, and you can only recover one cow at a time. The hole gets deep, and it’s hard to climb out. end mark

PHOTO: Walt Cooley.

Ian Gallacher worked in software design and management for 18 years. In 2015, he and his wife, Margaret, started to build Lord’s Bounty Farm in Jefferson, Oregon, and its automated dairy from the ground up, to the glory of God.

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