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Consultant trains dairy producers to let robots do the work

PD Editor Emily Caldwell Published on 04 April 2012


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PD Editor Emily Caldwell got a behind-the-scenes look at a robotic dairy start-up, where consultant Paul Berdell walked the Leech family of Virginia through transitioning their 240-cow herd to four Lely robots.

A recent Journal of Dairy Science abstract, based on research from Michigan State University, highlighted that after eight days of transitioning more than 60 percent of the herd was milking voluntarily, and 95 percent of the herd was milking voluntarily within a month.

We asked Berdell:
Q. Based on your experiences, would you say those results are typical of most robotic dairies?

I very rarely have a robot herd that is 60 percent voluntary after eight days. My goal is to aim for at least 50 percent by the end of 11 to 12 days. I am usually around 30 percent after one week.

The issue is that there are many variables in this system that can cause these numbers to sway different directions. Is the herd in a new facility or an existing facility?


Did they come from a tiestall barn or milking parlor? How many cows are there per robot? All of these items have more or less impact on the percentage of voluntary milkings after so many days.

I noticed this info is from Michigan State, which has two robots. So if this info is off of their farm then the load per robot at start-up was about 33 to 34 per robot. Most of my herds are at 50 cows plus per robot on start-up.

The more cows, the slower the voluntary milkings come because of time issues and competition. Herds that run lower numbers of cows per robot at start usually adapt much faster, but most herds have to run full loads because of financial reasons or they don’t really want to sell cows.

Herd production at start and diet also has impact on start-up behavior, so often these items are not 100 percent at start-up and will positively impact or negatively impact herd behavior towards the robot.

I don’t really disagree with the abstract because it is possible with certain variables in place. Does it happen very often? No, maybe 10 percent of start-ups will get this kind of response that fast.
—Paul Berdell, Robotic Milking Integration Solutions



Paul Berdell & Leech family

The decision to install robots involves a lot of discussion: How many robots will work for my herd? What type of system works best for me?

How can I convince my lender that this a good business decision? How will my labor costs change?

But once the decision is made and the robots are installed, a whole new set of questions arise: How will my herd get used to the robots? How do I manage this software and the data it can provide? How do I need to adjust my herd’s ration?

Luckily, there’s a consultant for that. Paul Berdell of Robotic Milking Integration Solutions has been working with robots for more than a decade. In late February, he consulted the Leech family of Ingleside Dairy in Lexington, Virginia, on the startup of four Lely robots for 240 cows.

Scroll down or click on one of the following links to see accompanying /MORE content: 1. , featuring clips of the start-up in action, and 2. , showcasing more photos from the Leech robotic milking dairy.

Charles and Linda Leech and their two adult children, Beau and Jennifer, who are involved in the farm full-time, were no strangers to automated technology on the dairy.

“We’ve been using an automatic calf feeder for a while,” Linda says. “We discovered that if you pushed a calf into the feeder each time, it was never going to learn. It helped us to realize that these animals are smart. We know that if we’re able to provide a gentle, pleasant experience for the cows at the robots, like we do with the calves and the feeder, it’s going to work.”

Ingleside Dairy was the first farm in Virginia to install a Lely robot system. Their local dealership, C & C Farm Supply in Harrisonburg, offered Berdell’s services as part of their installation and equipment costs.

This is typical for most of his consulting jobs, Berdell says. He has been hired by Lely directly, though. In fact, that’s how he got started.

In late 2009, he approached the president of Lely and explained he had an idea that could help producers installing robotic milking equipment. Lely paid for his first two startup consulting jobs. Since then, he has assisted in more than 60 startups, traveling coast to coast.

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The work begins about a month before startup. Berdell met with the Leech family to plan out how the startup would work.

“I like to use that meeting to feel out the owners,” Berdell says. “It allows me to get to know them a little better and for them to get to know me. That helps to keep the communication chains open.”

Berdell says that on larger operations with six or more robots, usually two or more meetings are required.

Once the pre-planning is done, Berdell makes his travel arrangements for the startup, typically spending about two weeks with the farm.

What’s in his suitcase?

“A new pair of boots, a few good pairs of clothes, lots of barn clothes and my laptop,” he says. “That’s about all I need.”

With the Ingleside Dairy startup, Berdell arrived the evening before milking with the robots began. He worked with Jennifer Leech to answer questions about the Lely software on the farm’s computer.

He also spent time with Beau and Charles, explaining how the cows would be pushed through the robots. C & C recruited a crew of local dairy farmers to aid in sorting, fetching and walking the cows to and from the robots.

This same group worked with the Leeches to spend three days prior to startup walking each cow through the robot, without being milked, in an attempt to get the herd used to the process.

The robots were installed with a left-hand unit and a right-hand unit for each of the two groups of cows. Berdell told the Leech family to plan on running all four robots at once, but he warned that it would work out to be four to six cows per robot per hour. He estimated it would be about 10 to 12 hours before the entire herd had been milked by the robots.

“Think worst-case scenario,” Berdell told the producers. “If it turns out better, you’ll be excited.”

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On the morning of startup, Berdell began training the Leeches on how to operate the robot. In order to help the robot learn the placement of each individual cow’s teats and udder, a human hand (and mind) needed to position the robot arm back and forth and line it up properly.

Berdell trained each of the family members individually, beginning with Beau, then Jennifer.

“No offense,” he said to Charles and Linda, “but the younger generation typically picks it up a little quicker.”

Every cow in the herd needed to be read by the system as having a successful milking, which meant that the robot had successfully attached to all four teats, not necessarily that the cow had let down her milk.

If a cow did not have a successful milking and was turned loose, the adjusting process would need to begin all over again.

The process was painstaking. Each time a cow moved too far forward or too far back, the person operating the robot would have to start again. Small teats and teats that were too close together were an added challenge.

But the family was prepared for the long hours and the tedious process of switching to robots, Linda said.

“When we talked with other producers who had installed robots, they told us, ‘After three days, the cows start going through on their own. After three weeks, we know we’re going to survive this process. After three months, we’re able to say OK, this is going to work,’ ” she said.

Despite the frustrations of installation and startup of the equipment, implementing robotic milking technology is on the rise, Berdell says.

“Feed companies have come a long way in understanding and learning how to work with robotic dairies,” he says. “Since there’s no trial-and-error anymore, feed representatives are more apt to promote the technology to their herds.”

Berdell advises producers that it’s important to get the details right. He consults with dairy owners on everything from the herd’s ration to bedding to hoof care.

“The robot isn’t a veterinarian,” he says. “It’s just a box that milks cows. If you don’t manage everything around it properly, it’s not going to work. I think people realize that now.”

At three weeks into the process of switching to robots, Linda Leech took to her Facebook profile to express her gratitude to Berdell.

“For our dairy friends (or anyone interested in robotic milking) check out RMIS (Robotic Milking Integration Solutions) on FB,” she posted.

“RMIS helped us and our cows so much in adjusting to the robotic system. Paul advised us, taught us, answered all our questions, worked along beside us, brought us coffee and relieved us when we were worn out. Startup would have been much, much more difficult without his expertise!” PD

To contact Berdell about his consulting services, click here to email or call (610) 755-1655 .

Consultant Paul Berdell explains to the Leech family how to adjust their new milking robot using its touch screen. Photo by Emily Caldwell.


" target="_blank"> Emily Caldwell Editor
Progressive Dairyman