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How to Make the Transition to Robotic Milking

Twenty-five years ago, when the first milking robots were introduced to dairy farmers, they seemed to be from out of this world. Today, many dairy producers worldwide appreciate the innovation.

Marcia Endres, University of Minnesota professor of dairy cattle production, says that while growth of fully automated dairy milking systems has been slower in the U.S., they have been common in Europe for many years. The first robots were installed in the Netherlands, Belgium, and France.

By 1997, over 100 robots were used in barns around the world and more companies were developing the innovation and technology for their customers. As smart technology continues to evolve, so have the technology and innovation involved with automatic dairy milking systems. Besides milking machines, companies have developed other automation for feeding cows and calves.

Adopting robots

While most robots have been seen in dairies with 120 to 240 cows, Endres says, in the past four years, there has been growth in larger operations.

“Of all new robotic milking systems going in, 35% are in the herds of 500-plus cows,” she says. “Some are the typical setups with the box robots. Others may be more batch milking situations where people will bring cows to 10 robots. While cows are being milked, the workers can clean the barns.”

With the tough economic times in the U.S. dairy industry, Endres is surprised producers are still transitioning to robots.

“I really think the growth we’ll see going forward with robotic dairies will be because of the difficulty in finding employees,” she says. “Fewer actual workers are needed with robots; instead, supervisors are needed to ensure everything is running properly. A different kind of labor is needed.”

Management continues to be the foundation for success when it comes to using robotics, which Endres says is the key to any successful operation. 

“An operation with the right management using robotic milking systems can see an increase in milk production,” she says. “Cows tend to stay calmer when they can choose when to be milked – when they aren’t forced.”

Feed management is also important in the automatic robotic milking systems. Endres says nutritional needs are not necessarily the same as in a conventional milking system. Part of the cow’s feed is fed in the robot, which is also how cows are trained to enter the robot. Cows in a robotic system are generally fed smaller amounts more often than those on a conventional dairy farm.

With robotic systems, more tools are available for tracking a cow’s activity and health. At-risk lists can be created for workers to find and determine whether a cow has a health issue. Some producers will print this more than once a day to monitor a herd more closely.

“While there are some challenges with robotic dairies, the benefits of flexibility of time and less need for labor make the change very attractive to today’s dairy producers,” Endres says. 

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