Penn State Kicks Off Robotic Milking Series

10/26/2013 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

With more farms using automatic, or robotic, milking systems, questions on how to succeed with this system have arisen with the increased interest.

This week, the Penn State Technology Tuesday series launched a set of webinars on the topic. Jim Salfer of the University of Minnesota kicked off the series with an update on a robotic milking survey.

Salfer and a team of researchers at the University of Minnesota asked farmers about housing, management, animal welfare and cow performance on robotic milking systems.

Salfer said if there was something he would recommend, it’s more well-planned studies of these systems.

The research team surveyed 52 farms in 2012, collecting data about both design and management. It also looked at animal health scores and is still in the middle of collecting cow production data.

The surveyed farms split 50-50 between new facilities and retrofitted barns. There also were five organic farms in the survey.

The study found several reasons for farms opting into a robotic dairy system.

They ranged from the traditional reasons — lifestyle flexibility, labor management and need to update facilities — to personal health from the wear and tear on knees, hips and shoulders from milking cows.

The farms surveyed all had box robotic systems from Lely or DeLaval.

When it comes to robots, it’s a balance between labor, capital investment and lifestyle, according to Salfer.

“Or where do you want to spend your money” — labor or capital investment? he said.

A robotic dairy needs to make sense in terms of cash flow, according to Salfer. It is not a question of whether there will be labor savings, he said, but do those labor savings translate into profitability?

The labor saved needs to be used to improve the farm’s bottom line through other farm enterprises, such as improved crop yield.

Quoting dairy producer Doug Kastenschmidt of Ripon, Wis., he said, “Management makes milk. Robots only harvest it.”

Producers who had a goal of saying “good morning to the cows on their way to the fields and good night were frustrated,” he said, because the cows still have to be managed.

This system works well for farmers who like to manage cows and technology. It also works well for farmers who enjoy dairying but have reached limits in traditional milking parlors or tie-stall barns.

Salfer said something he has discovered about robotic dairies is how much feed management is required. Changes in the ration can affect how cows use the robot.

“If you are working with farms, you have to like feed management. You have to do a really good job at bunk management,” he said.

Salfer said robotic dairying is a small-farm-friendly technology. But these farmers have to think “more like a large farm, asking, What can I do to get one or two more turns through my parlor?’

“The things that drive milk per robot are idle time and robot use,” he said.

Some dairies were fine-tuning management through balancing milking permissions, milkings per cow per day and the number of cows per robot.

“This is one of the things we need to understand better” to help farmers manage better, he said.

Mat Haan of Penn State Extension showed video clips of farmers from Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan and their robotic dairy operations.

Lewis Horning of Ephrata, Pa., said farmers need to realize that robotic milking “is not going to be vacation time, but it was nice to not have as strict of a schedule.”

The one thing Horning did caution about was to “be realistic, especially in the first two years of transitioning into a robot. The first six months take more time than you spent previously in your barn.”

Tom Oesch of Wisconsin said, “You don’t have to wonder who is milking the cows” anymore with the robots in place.

But Al Simons of Michigan said you have to still come to the barn, saying he spends as much time at the barn as he did before, just in a different manner. Also, the farmer is on call, because if there is a problem, the robot will call your phone.

Margie Weiss of Michigan said one challenge is that she does not like to disturb the cows’ daily routine. She works with the vet and hoof trimmer as quickly as possible to get the cows back to their schedule, minimizing the disturbance. She also said farmers should visit plenty of farms before building the barn.

Ken Shaffer of Trevorton, Pa., said training the cows seemed tough while doing it but was not so bad in retrospect. He also said it took some time to learn how to manage the technology.

Salfer provided some preliminary data from the survey. About 75 percent of the farms have “free-flow,” or unrestricted, access to feed and the robotic milker. The other 25 percent were in a “guided-flow” system where the cows have to be milked before getting access to feed or vice versa.

The guided-flow system has been much more popular in Europe, he said.

Production averaged 74.4 pounds per cow per day. Concentrate usage was about 11 pounds per day in the free-flow systems and about half that in the guided-flow systems. The cows averaged 2.8 milkings per day.

Salfer said there were pros and cons to both systems. With the free-flow system, a farmer has to watch for cows who “overuse” the robot because they like what’s fed at milking more than the feed in the bunk.

The farms had plans for manure scraping, either through slatted floors, automatic scrapers or with a skid steer. Provisions for cows to lie down ranged from mattresses to sand, sometimes with pasture access. Other common elements were mechanical rotating brushes and automatic feed pushers.

Some of the farmers placed footbaths at the exit of the robot; others put them in another part of the barn and pushed all the cows through a couple of times a week.

Salfer recommends that if the footbath is at the exit of the robot, water should be kept in it when not treating to avoid disrupting cow flow. But farmers have to monitor this closely “to keep it from turning into a slurry” full of manure and dirty water.

He said footbath placement was an area where farmers wanted more information.

Not many of the surveyed farms had a special-needs area, he said. The advantage of a special-needs area is that it keeps the cows close to the robot. However, if health is very good on a farm, the special-needs area was left empty.

Incidents of lameness were similar to other studies completed on stall services, sand, mattresses and pasture; and fewer cows were on bedded-pack systems, compared with waterbeds and mattresses.

The overall lameness was higher than in other housing systems, in part, because of the footbath debates. A number of the farms were not using footbaths at the time.

The next Technology Tuesday webinar will be at 8:30 a.m. Nov. 26 and will focus on facility design for robotic milking dairies.

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