Current Progressive Dairy digital edition

Planning for a robotic milking system

Greg Larson Published on 11 September 2014

Robotic milking system

If you are considering switching to robotic milking, you’re entering a period of very active decision-making for your business.



This is an important time to bring together your entire dairy management team.

That includes key family members and employees from within the operation as well as trusted external advisers, including your milking equipment dealer who provides the experts with the ability to guide you through the decision-making process, the banker, the engineer and environmental/regulatory officials.

In addition, project team members should include your nutritionist, veterinarian, genetics supplier and others.

It is important for all of your team members to have open dialogue with one another throughout the project. While planning can be a laborious process, the more details you can work out in the early stages, the fewer surprises and complications you will have when construction and operation begin.

Start with your milking equipment dealer
Beginning with your milking equipment dealer will provide you with the scope of the project, budgetary numbers and set the pace for goals and expectations for the dairyman. The milking equipment dealer can provide preliminary plans and drawings of the proposed facility.


These insights will help with planning and lending. Once the preliminary scope is agreed upon by the dairy, the lender and the environmental/regulatory officials can be engaged.

Naturally, financing will be a major part of the process. You’ll need to work closely with your lender to determine whether you have the liquid capital or borrowing capacity to build a new facility. As with other capital investments, pay-off, operating costs, depreciation and long-term profitability also will need to be projected.

Many producers find that the milking system essentially pays for itself based on the labor costs it replaces versus traditional parlor milking. And enhancements in cow comfort and milking frequency should translate into more milk production in well-managed herds utilizing cow-guidance systems.

The four main decision areas
Think about why you want to switch to robotic milking. What are the primary goals you hope to achieve with it? Those priorities will serve as guideposts for many of the decisions related to the four major management areas of robotic milking that must be considered, which are:

1. Cow traffic – Deciding between free-cow traffic and milk-first systems equipped with a cow-guidance system will have a major bearing on your total barn layout, ventilation, manure-handling system and ultimately affect a producer’s bottom line and the investment he will make in the robotic feeding program.

In a free-cow traffic system, cows have the ability to eat, visit the milking box and rest in the freestalls when they want. If they visit the milking box too often, they will be rejected by the milking box.


Nutrition programs in a free-cow traffic system require feeding more concentrates (pounds of pellets per milking) in the milking box and a partial mixed ration (PMR) is fed at the bunk. Feed fed per cow per milking at the robot in free-cow traffic systems typically is 50 percent higher than feed fed per cow per milking in milk-first facilities.

A cow-guidance system controls cows’ movement a bit more than free-cow traffic systems; thus milk-first barns reduce the number of cows that have to be physically “fetched” to be milked.

A cow-guidance system or “milk-first system” checks cows by milking priority as they enter the cow-guidance system. The cow-guidance system channels low-priority milking cows to the feedbunk and channels high-priority cows to the robotic milking system for their milking permission.

Every time a cow goes to the cow-guidance system, she will receive a token amount of pellets in the robot, or the cow-guidance system refuses her milking permission and will send her to the feedbunk; the cow is trained and knows she’s going to the dinner table every time she goes through the cow-guidance system.

2. Feedbunk management and special-care cows – Guided traffic allows for more customized feeding groups. After milking, cows can be sorted into different feeding zones based on production level, parity, stage of lactation or other desired criteria. Herds with milk-first barns typically utilize a post-selection system for management and veterinary actions and postfresh cow zones.

Rations formulated for milk-first barns mirror traditional TMR standards. Less purchased concentrate feed at the robot also allows producers to maximize their use of home-grown forages for maximum robotic profitability. Milk-first barns feed more pounds of dry matter per cow at the feedbunk than free-cow traffic barns.

3. Manure management – What type of bedding do you prefer? Bedding type will have a major influence on both ongoing operational costs and manure-handling methods. How do you want to handle manure? Would you prefer a flush system, automatic barn cleaner or using a skid-steer loader? Where will the manure lagoon be located?

Be sure to bring your manure system experts to the table early in the planning process, not at the end when most of the other structural decisions already have been made.

4. Ventilation – If you are building a new barn or retrofitting, you have to consider and be able to ventilate your barn 365 days a year. Design your facility for the hottest day of the year and the coldest day of the year.

Room for growth
Like the old Johnny Cash tune, a lot of farm sites evolve “one piece at a time.” As you plan your project, you may be able to embrace this opportunity to think strategically about the layout of your farm “campus.” At the same time, it is important to evaluate if and how future expansion at your dairy site is possible.


  • Is the location and capacity of the manure pit conducive to future expansion?
  • Are calf and heifer facilities located in logical spots relative to the milking barn and feed areas?
  • Is your feed storage area expandable?
  • Would the addition of other buildings interfere with the ventilation of your new or existing buildings?
  • Will CAFO limits or other regulations be limiting factors in future expansions?

This is a time to put a lot of thought and discussion into the long-term vision you have for your dairy enterprise. Adopting an automatic milking system will be an exciting step for you in your dairy career. At the same time, you could help to make continued growth and progress possible for future generations to come. PD

Proper planning for a robotic milking system will reduce the number of surprises and complications that arise when construction and operation begin. Photo courtesy of GEA Farm Technologies.

greg larson

Greg Larson
Multi-box Robotic Milking System Expert
GEA Farm Technologies