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Challenges and Benefits of Adopting Robotic Milking on Michigan Dairy Farms

Mathew Haan, W.K. Kellogg Biological Station
Diana Stuart, W.K Kellogg Biological Station and MSU Dept. of Sociology
Becky Schewe, Mississippi State University Dept. of Sociology

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Automatic Milking Systems (AMS), also referred to as robotic milkers, were developed in Europe and became available there in 1992.  This technology was introduced to the US in 2000 and the first robotic milker was installed on a Michigan dairy farm in 2009.  There are currently 10 dairy farms in Michigan using robotic milking technology (figure 1).  This paper summarizes the experiences of dairy farmers in the Upper Midwest with robotic milking technology.  Information was gathered during interviews with dairy farmers in the Upper Midwest currently using robotic milking systems (15 farms represented), during a focus group with the Robotic Dairy Users Group (7 farms represented, see sidebar), a robotic milking workshop (Benefits, Obstacles, and Solutions for Robotic Milking Technology), and other discussions with producers and industry personnel working with AMS.  Both the focus group and workshop were held at the W.K. Kellogg Biological Station near Hickory Corners, MI on March 13, 2012. 

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The Robotic Dairy Users Group includes dairy producers in Michigan and Indiana currently using robotic milking technology and those interested in adoption of the technology, MSU research and extension staff with an interest in robotic milking technology, and industry representatives.  The group meets twice a year for farm tours and to discuss challenges and share experiences with robotic milking.  The group uses an e-mail list serve to stay in contact between meetings.  Individuals interested in participating in this group should contact Mat Haan (haanm@msu.edu, 269-671-2360).

participants

  1. What is Robotic milking and how does it work?

Robotic milking is a voluntary milking system, which allows the cow to set her own milking schedule.  Following an initial training period, cows are milked with limited human interaction.  Each cow on a robotic milking dairy is fitted with an electronic tag which allows the robot to identify her.  When a cow enters the robot, her ID tag is read and she receives a feed reward customized to her level of production, the robot then cleans her teats, attaches the milk cups, and begins the milking processes.  When milking is complete, the cups disconnect as each quarter finishes milking and she exits the robot.  Milking occurs throughout the day and night. 

  1. What motivated current robotic milking users to purchase this technology?

Labor issues were the primary motivation current robot users gave for converting to a robotic milking system. These issues included both hiring and managing employees and providing greater flexibility over their own schedule.  A desire to spend more time with children or grandchildren was often given as a motivating factor in adoption of robotic milking.  The transition to robotic milking often occurred when an existing barn or milking parlor was in need of updating or as an expansion of an existing dairy operation.  On some farms the transition to robotic milking occurred with the transfer of the management or operation of the dairy to the next generation.

  1. What is the biggest challenge current robot users reported to adopting this technology?

The greatest barrier to adopting the technology was the purchase cost of the systems.  Fear of mechanical failure and learning the new technology were also described as difficult challenges. 

  1. After transitioning to robotic milking what do current users see as the biggest advantage?

Labor flexibility and not needing to manage hired labor were the biggest advantages reported by current users of robotic milkers.  For example, the whole family is now able to go to weddings, graduations, and other events without someone needing to stay home to milk.  Improved production and improved animal health, reduced somatic cell counts and access to better data which allows for quicker identification and treatment of disease were also listed as benefits.

  1. Biggest challenge faced by dairy farmers using this technology?

Across all companies selling robotic milking technology users felt that better technical support was needed.  Users felt that service has not been fast enough and it was sometimes difficult to get in contact with the correct person.  Users did report that as robots have become more common, and technicians gain more experience with the systems, support is improving.  Learning to use the software and to interpret data from the robots were also reported as challenges for some users, though all companies currently selling robots offer training and support in working with software and data.

  1. How much time is spent on preventative maintenance of the robots and what is the annual maintenance cost?

Each of the robotic companies has recommendations for regular maintenance procedures.  Users report about 20 minutes per day for routine maintenance of the robot.  Annual maintenance cost varied from farm to farm and depended on how much the user was able to do on farm without calling in the service company. 

  1. How do robots impact cow health?

Producers reported an improvement in cow health and a reduction in instances of mastitis following the transition to robotic milking.  This was attributed to less stress on the cows and to having better access to information on their cows.  The amount and type of information obtained from the robots varied by brand of robot, but in general, robots provide information on milk quality and body weight of the cow.  Activity monitors and rumination sensors are also available and used by some producers.  During the robotic milking workshop one dairy farmer reported that since transitioning to robotic milking, his cows stay in the herd an average of one or two more lactations than when milking in a parlor.

  1. What do robots do to milk production?

Reports of changes in milk production with the transition to robotic milking vary depending on how the herd was managed prior to adopting robotic technology.  When increases are reported it is typically for dairies that had been milking twice per day prior to the transition. 

  1. What does it take to train cows to use the robots?  Is it difficult to train heifers?

According to the producers, initial training of a herd transitioning to robots took six to eight weeks.  Following the initial transition the amount of training required depended on the cow; some cows figured it out after their first time through the robot while others took a week or more.  It was important that the cow’s first experience in the robot was positive, as it was felt that training would take longer if her first experience is negative.  It was not perceived to be much more difficult to train a heifer than a cow; some producers said it was easier to train the heifers.  Most users reported that training cows was less of a challenge than they had anticipated. 

  1. Does robotic milking create any challenges for milk inspection or working with inspectors?

Because robotic milking is relatively new to Michigan and not yet common, dairy inspectors do not have a lot of experience with these systems and may not be familiar with their operation.  Dairy farmers considering the transition to robotic milking should maintain an open dialog with their milk inspector about their plans and timeline. For further information, Appendix Q of the Pasteurized Milk Ordinance specifies rules related to robotic milking.

  1. Are robots only for small dairy farms?

While having 1, 2 or 3 robots is more common on dairies in Michigan and surrounding states, there are dairies in Michigan milking approximately 500 cows with 8 robots and larger farms in other parts of the country. 

  1. How many cows can a robot milk?

A typical recommendation is 60 to 65 cows per robot.  This assumes an average of 3 milkings per cow per day.  One Michigan dairy was milking 105 cows on a single robot in a pasture-based system, but this is not recommended.  Another farm reported going from milking 65 cows per robot to milking 57 cows per robot without a reduction in total daily milk production from the herd; this was attributed to allowing greater robot access for those cows that remained.

  1. How much does a robot cost?

The price of $200,000 per robot is a good starting point when planning a transition to robotic milking.  In some instances used robots have been purchased at significant savings, however, the supply of used robots in the US is limited. 

  1. Are robotic milking systems affordable?

Extension staff at Iowa State University developed a partial budget for dairies using robotic milking.  This report (The Economics of Automatic Milking Systems) provides information on many of the economic assumptions related to robotic milking and can be found at http://www.extension.iastate.edu/dubuque/info/Dairy+Publications.htm.

  1.  What one thing about the robots has made the most money?

The ability to milk 3 times per day without increasing labor and lower vet bills resulting from less mastitis were reported as the biggest money makers with the transition to robots.

  1. What feed is fed in the robot?  How much is fed in the robot? 

It is recommended to feed a good quality, palatable pellet feed at the robot.  Some dairies feed corn meal or roasted soybeans at the robot.  The total amount of pellet fed varied between cows and with stage of production.  Nine to 12 pounds of pellet per cow per day were commonly reported during mid-lactation with as little as 2 pounds per day fed during late lactation.  The computer software with the robot allows the dairy producer to tailor the diet to the needs of individual animals based on milk production or other factors.    

  1. What does a typical robotic milking dairy look like?

There is no typical robotic dairy.  Most producers reported using confinement systems, but some are pasture-based with cows walking a half-mile or more from the pasture to the barn for milking.  Some producers reported using sand bedding; others say they use rubber mats or water mattresses.  Some reported scraping manure with a tractor; others said they were using automatic scraping systems.  About half of the dairies in Michigan with robots have constructed a new barn while the rest have modified their existing facility.  While none of the dairy farms in Michigan said they were certified organic, there are dairies in other states with robots that are certified organic.  Robotic dairies can use free-flow (cows can go anywhere in the barn) or a directional flow (one way and electronic sort gates keep cows rotating around the barn).  Both were reported to work, but producers typically indicated a preference for one system or the other.

  1. How many companies are currently selling robots in Michigan?

There are currently 3 brands of robotic milking systems on farms in Michigan; Lely, DeLaval, and GEA Farm Technologies.  While there are other brands available, these are the most common with each having its own strength or characteristic that a dairy farmer may prefer over another brand.

  1. After having robots for a while, what do current users wish they knew before they transitioned to robots?

Farmers wished that they had been better prepared for how hard the first few months (or year) would be with breakdowns and learning the software. They also wished that they had been better prepared for how high the maintenance costs could be.

  1. Where can I see a robotic milking system in operation?

For dairy farmers currently using robotic milking systems, seeing a robot in action was an important factor in their decision to install the technology on their farm.  For early adopters this meant traveling out of the state or country.  Today, with several farms in Michigan using this technology, it is much easier to see robotic milking in operation.  The Kellogg Biological Station Dairy is organizing a Robotic Milking Bus Tour on July 25, 2012.  The tour will include stops at farms using each of the three brands of robotic milking system currently available in Michigan.  For more information about this tour or to arrange a visit to the Kellogg Biological Station Dairy contact Mat Haan at haanm@msu.edu or 269-671-2360.

 
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Michigan Dairy Review is published and mailed to all Michigan dairy farmers and individuals working in allied industries. With its ever increasing on-line presence, the MDR target audience has spread beyond Michigan and the U.S.; today electronic subscribers are located in places such as Australia, The Scandinavia, Italy, Mexico, Ireland, Peru, and New Zealand.  

The MDR is the primary communications vehicle for research findings, extension programming, and teaching between faculty and staff in MSU dairy programs and the dairy industry. The MDR web site is paid for by the C. E. Meadows Endowment.