These parlors will have to be priced to cash-flow, and or they simply won’t sell.
As you head south on curving State Hwy. 27 from Sparta to Cashton in western Wisconsin, you can’t help but be struck by the beauty of the landscape left untouched by glaciers 10,000 years ago. The deep green of fourth-crop alfalfa, tasseled corn and lush, canopied soybeans on bottom land are set against hardwood-covered ridges for 15 glorious, winding miles.
Interspersed in this late summer bounty are dairy farms of all stripes: Conventional tie stall barns, freestall barns, organic grazing dairies—and deeper into the coulees, Amish hillside bank barns, goat dairies and maybe even a sheep dairy or two. This corner of Wisconsin is perhaps the most diverse dairy area in the nation. And come March 2015, the area will be home to the largest, most automated milking parlor in the world.
The DairyProQ parlor from GEA, the first of its type in North America, has a robotic arm at each stall, which will disinfect and prep teats, attach units, milk, post dip and sanitize the units after each milking.
Last week, Nick Mlsna and his family had the official groundbreaking for their new, 72-stall, fully robotic rotary milking parlor. The DairyProQ parlor from GEA, the first of its type in North America, will have a robotic arm at each stall, which will disinfect and prep teats, attach units, milk, post dip and sanitize the units after each milking.
The Mlsnas currently milk 900 cows, and will go to 2,000 when the new parlor and cross-ventilated freestall facility is completed next year. The Mlsna’s currently employ 21 employees, milking 3X with a three-person crew working each eight-hour shift. The Mlsna’s hope to retain all 21 employees after the expansion, but will need only one person per shift in the robotic parlor to monitor cow flow, unit attachments and milk out.
This is true capital for labor replacement. Milking labor savings will have to pay for the new technology for it to become widely adapted. With milking labor now costing upwards of $13 to $15 to even $18 per hour, those saving should be substantial. If three fewer milkers are needed per hour in a 72-stall rotary and labor and benefits are $15/hour, the simple math says savings could approach $400,000 per year.
Milking should also be more consistent with far less procedural drift that often occurs with humans working long, eight- to 10-hour shifts, says Matt Daley, CEO of GEA. That should result in better milk let-down, faster milk-outs and possibly a pound or two more milk.
But it’s unlikely the rotaries will be able to rely on a 15% jump in milk production that the box robots on smaller dairies often see. On those smaller dairies, cows are usually coming from 2X milking to being milked 3X. In these larger parlor herds, most are already being milked 3X.
Partial budgets done by the University of Minnesota show that labor saving alone aren’t enough to cash flow the box robots. That’s because they usually only replace one person or maybe two, and those folks are still employed on the farm doing other things. So to cash-flow, the robots must harvest more milk per cow. Plus, milk price plays a huge role. The robots typically are profitable at $20 milk, but budgets bleed deep red if prices drop to $15.
GEA officials weren’t willing to say what the rotary robotics will cost. That’s somewhat understandable, and yet surprising, given this is the first-ever North American installation and the eyes of the continent will be on this facility. All they’d share is the rotary robots will be substantially less than the boxed units.
European experience with smaller, 40- to 60-stall robot rotaries shows they milk effectively and efficiently. Now, dairy farmers here will want to know if they profitably cash flow. Many will drive south down Hwy. 27 over the next few years for the answer. They won’t be doing it for the scenery.