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Is Robotic Milking Right for Your Operation?

Jul 15, 2013

Switching to robotic milking is a weighty decision. But those who have done it say it is life-changing.

GEA Greg Larson 010313By Greg Larson, MIone multi-box robotic milking system expert with GEA Farm Technologies

You’ve read about them in Dairy Today. Your neighbor, or a dairy in the next county, may have one. Now you’re wondering if your farm, too, might someday be the home of a robotic or automatic milking system (AMS).

Switching to robotic milking is a weighty decision. But those who have done it say it has been a life-changing leap that has permanently transformed their life as dairy producers.

A More Flexible Lifestyle

Quality of life is the most obvious advantage of robotic milking. Instead of your schedule being ruled by milking times, you have the flexibility to adjust your work hours around other activities.

While using an AMS might initially sound like a way of removing oneself from the cows, the opposite is actually true. Being freed of milking responsibilities provides more time to walk among the cows in the barn, observing their behaviors and monitoring their physical condition. It also makes it possible to focus more on reproduction programs, hoof health, calf and heifer rearing, and excellent forage production.

Many dairy producers who have switched to an AMS also say their work now focuses less on the physical task of executing milking two or three times a day and more on analyzing data, working on feeding and breeding strategies, and setting and monitoring goals for the farm. With relief from the physical exhaustion of the constant demands of milking, they can focus more clearly on the bigger picture of their dairy enterprises.

Hired labor savings is another tremendous advantage. Locating, hiring, training and managing labor are time-consuming and sometimes frustrating tasks for dairy managers. With an AMS, you’ll never have to scramble when a worker doesn’t show up for a shift, quits or is fired. You not only are relieved of the time and expense of hiring additional workers, but also of the regulatory and accounting tasks that are a part of employing on-farm labor. And, because robotic milking systems prepare and milk every cow the same way, every time, you eliminate the "procedural drift" and human error that can otherwise occur.

But What About the Cows?

Robotic milking allows cows to listen to their natural instincts. They have the freedom to be milked, eat, rest and ruminate on their own schedule, not one that has been predetermined for them. This allows for improved udder health; fewer digestive upsets and metabolic problems; and — almost always — higher milk production.

MMS robotic milker
Robotic milking allows cows to listen to their natural instincts. They have the freedom to be milked, eat, rest and ruminate on their own schedule, not one that has been predetermined for them. Photo courtesy of GEA Farm Technologies.

 

Cow health and well-being is carefully monitored for every animal, because computerized AMS monitoring detects cows that are not visiting the robot frequently enough. This could be an indication of a foot injury or other ailment. Daily monitoring of individual-cow milk production, activity level and feed intake during milking are additional indicators of animal health. And evaluation of milk conductivity can detect mastitis infections at the subclinical stage, so they can be treated and cured efficiently.

Customized feeding options also help to create a nutrition plan tailored to the individual needs of every cow. Feeding of concentrates in the milker box is programmed for each animal, and can be adjusted to meet specific nutritional needs that change throughout lactation. Some robotic milking systems also allow for zone feeding post-milking. This system releases cows to specific feeding areas where they receive a TMR or PMR (partial mixed ration, minus the concentrates) based on their level of production, stage of lactation, parity or other factors prioritized by the herd owner and nutritionist.

Special-care areas also can be set up in conjunction with an AMS that might include a hospital area, maternity pens, fresh-cow pens, hoof-trimming facilities and palpation rails.

Questions to Ask

As you explore the possibility of switching to robotic milking, you will no doubt have many questions for the companies who manufacture and install AMS. Among them might be:

• How many milking units will be required to accommodate my herd size?
• What is the cost per unit, and how does it compare to the construction of a traditional parlor?
• How many hours of hired labor can I expect the system to replace?
• What improvement in milk production can I expect to realize?
• Can my current facilities be retrofitted to accommodate an AMS?
• If we’re building new facilities, can the AMS manufacturer assist with their design?
• What accommodations can be made to the milking system to allow for future herd growth?
• Does the system allow for various methods of controlling cow traffic?
• Does the system allow for customized zone feeding after milking?
• What will the transition to robotic milking be like for me and my cows?
• What type of technical support does the manufacturer offer, both during the start-up transition, and after the system is up and running?

Talk to Current Users

One of the best ways to explore the merits of robotic milking systems is to visit dairies on which they already are in use and talk to the producers who own them. They will be able to share their own decision-making processes, explain the functions of their individual systems and facility designs, and tell you the results that they have witnessed in their own operations.

If you’re interested in focusing less time and effort on managing hired labor and more of it on managing your cows — on your own schedule — then robotic milking may be right for you.

For more information, contact Greg Larson, MIone multi-box robotic milking system expert with GEA Farm Technologies at (877) 973-2479, e-mail: MIone.na@gea.com, or go to: http://www.gea-farmtechnologies.com.

 

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