Robotic milking is a practice that has continued to grow in popularity across the U.S. in the last several years, and it is something that is likely to continue to expand. While the practices are different, the operation principles remain the same.
“Robotic milking is here to stay,” said Charlie Gardner of Cargill Animal Nutrition Consulting Services during a recent webinar with Pennsylvania University Extension. “I think it is important to keep in mind that some things don’t change. The basics of sound herd management don’t change. We need good forages, herd health, udder management, and reproductive and hoof health. We need all those things and I think sometimes, some producers think when they have this shiny robot, everything is going to get better, and some things can because of the robots, but we still need the basics in place.”
When robotic milking first became a commercially available option in 2001 in North America, the focus was put on the cow, but the focus has shifted.
“In the last couple of years, we see the focus has switched to dairy management,” said Ben Smink, farm management support manager for Lely North America. “It’s not about the machine and the cows, we see it’s really about good cow management.”
Producers choose to move to robotic milking for a number of reasons, but the primary push is usually for lifestyle and labor savings.
“People want to save on milking labor and I think it’s important to make sure people who are considering labor remember that management will not be saved. In fact, management labor will probably increase because these things have to be managed,” said Gardner.
In other cases, even the technology can be a push to robotics.
“Producers can take advantage of the technology to perhaps feed cows more precisely and get a lot of information back from each cow and each milking and be able to know what’s going on with each cow based on that technology,” said Gardner.
For some producers, having all of this information at their fingertips is an advantage, but the management style should be carefully looked at before switching from conventional milking practices.
“If you compare robots with conventional, there’s a difference in cow contact. There’s not so much hands-on contact with robots, but you have a better view of cow behavior,” said Smink. “You have much more information through the technology if you look at what the robot can generate. We get more than 120 values per cow per day from the robot.”
While the data is not all useful or relevant, it can help alert producers to problems more quickly than is often available in conventional milking parlors.
Besides analyzing management practices, producers need to consider their interest in computers and equipment.
“The question for anyone to consider if it is right for their farm is if they like computers. They are going to be forced to operate computers if they’re going to be successful in robotic milking,” said Gardner. “There is a lot of equipment involved. It’s very sophisticated, high tech equipment and it does breakdown. It needs servicing and requires attention and maintenance.”
Due to the nature of the system, robotic milking operates 24/7.
“Producers need to be aware that if they go robotic, it’s operated around the clock and it needs attention, sometimes when it is not convenient,” Gardner said.
Robotic milking facilities typically come in one of two major forms, free flow and guided flow.
“In free flow, cows are free to do kind of whatever they want to do and go anywhere, to the feed bunk, to the stalls, or to the robot for milking,” said Gardner. “Opposite of that is direct flow or guided flow and there are two versions of that. The most common is milk first, where once the cow has left the feed bunk, she cannot get back to the bunk without going to the robot.”
There are advantages and disadvantages to both options, so producers should visit with other robotic milking facilities and speak to specialists to find out what will be best for them.
“With free flow, there are no restrictions on what a cow does, so that will have the least investment and will likely be the most cow friendly,” said Gardner. “In guided flow milk first, we see there are one way gates installed, so once the cow has left the feed bunk, they must go to the robot and either be accepted to milk or not accepted and be kicked back to the barn before returning to the feed bunk.”
In guided flow facilities, producers typically see that they can feed more grain and also have to fetch cows less.
“We can feed more grain in the bunk because her energy needs are going to kick in sooner or later because she can’t get any feed once she leaves the bunk area without going through to be milked, so she has to come to the robot when she’s hungry,” said Gardner.
Selection gates can be added to both systems to help reduce time at the robot for cows that do not need to be milked.
“A selection gate means that instead of cows going directly to the robot, the gate determines whether or not she’s eligible to be milked, and if she’s not, it kicks her back to the bunk and what that can do is a cow does not actually have to enter the robot and be tied up,” said Gardner. “Some producers like to have it to keep an ineligible cow from tying up the robot.”
While the basic principles for cow comfort, hoof health and feed management remain the same, the process may have to shift for some herds.
“We believe the energy needs are what drive the cow to seek grain in the robot, so it’s important we keep energy at the bunk mix partial mixed ration (PMR) relatively low. Typically we end up feeding about half of the grain at the bunk and half at the robot,” said Gardner.
Providing the cows with a balanced ration is critical to the success of the herd management in robotic milking.
“I usually start with the PMR and it’s called that because part of the ration is going to be fed at the robot and part at the bunk,” said Gardner. “As a guideline, we balance the PMR at a level of production at about 15 pounds of expected or potential production,” said Gardner.
This means that for herds milking 75 pounds per day, nutritionists may choose to balance the PMR at 60 pounds per day for the expected 75 pounds per day of production. If a producer thinks the herd has potential to milk 90 pounds per day, then the PMR might switch to a level of production of 75 pounds per day to meet the expected production needs in the diet.
“Once I have the PMR balanced, then I use the PMR as an ingredient and plug it into the ration balancing program and formulate a pellet that will support the PMR,” said Gardner. “So when we’re all done, we usually have pellets being fed at the robot anywhere from three to four pounds for the lowest producing cows to keep them occupied to the highest at 18 pounds (total for the day).”
In these robotic facilities, cows are typically milking for six to eight minutes.
“In a lot of herds I work with, during the milking time, we set the pellets to a maximum of six pounds per visit,” said Gardner.
As with all feeds, palatability is critical to meet the energy needs of the herd and keep the production level high.
“You need to avoid a lot of corn meal or blood meal and a lot of meals that don’t taste good. The cow has to like the pellets, that’s part of what drives her in to the robot – the taste, and we want her to eat it quickly,” said Gardner. “If things are working well, these cows will really attack these pellets.”
Managing the technology and equipment can play an important part in keeping pellet quality at a level that will drive cows to the robots.
“We want to be sure to calibrate the feed dispenser,” said Gardner. “Keep in mind the robot dispenses the feed based on volume and we’re formulating it in pounds. It’s very easy to calibrate that robot, but people forget to do it, and that’s something we don’t want to overlook.”
Throughout the process, communication is key, especially between the robot technician and the nutritionist.
“If things aren’t working well, I think it’s important to get the nutritionist and the robot technician working together on the farm, working cooperatively with the producer trying to solve the issues,” says Gardner.
Ultimately before producers decide to switch from conventional milking systems to robotic milking, they should consult professionals and other producers.
“Prepare yourselves. Take time to listen to specialists before start up,” said Smink. “Listen particularly to other users. You don’t buy robots by looking at leaflets or talking to the sales person. You learn about robotic milking by visiting other dairies. When visiting, don’t focus just on the robot, but also on what management style the farmer uses.”