How to decide whether the "free flow" or "guided flow" method is right for your dairy.
By Greg Larson, MIone multi-box robotic milking system expert with GEA Farm Technologies
Of the many decisions that must be made when converting to a robotic milking system, choosing a cow traffic flow method will be one of the biggest decisions made.
There are two basic approaches to cow traffic in robotic milking systems – "free flow" or "guided flow." Both can work extremely well. As evidence, there are herds in the United States achieving production of 90 pounds per cow per day using each of these systems.
The choice between the two is a matter of herd goals and priorities; facility accommodations; and cost considerations.
Free flow promotes cow choice
As the name implies, free-flow traffic systems allow cows to operate on their own instincts. They choose how often they visit the robot, visit the feed bunk and rest in the free stalls. As a result, the cows usually eat smaller, more frequent meals, which can promote rumen health and a stable energy-balance. Ample resting time and low stress promote healthy feet and legs and a strong immune system.
Free-flow systems also have the lowest cost in the start-up phase because they require the least amount of sorting gates and other equipment. Most retrofitted barns are a free-flow system because it is the most practical to install in existing facilities.
The major drawback to a free-flow system is that you will spend more time "fetching" cows that do not visit the robot often enough. Feeding a high-cost feed concentrate in the robot and more pounds of concentrate per milking is necessary to entice cows to visit. Nutritional balancing also is more challenging, because the higher level of concentrate feeding results in the need to manage a "partial mixed ration" (PMR) at the bunk, versus a more traditional TMR system that dairyman are comfortable balancing.
"Milk-first" adds precision
Most herds using a guided-flow system take a "milk-first, feed-second" approach. Via a system of selection gates, cows are guided up to the robot for milking on a priority basis, ensuring that they are milked at regular intervals, up to four times per day. They then are released to the feeding area after milking.
Because the enticement of feed is not needed to attract cows to the robot, "milk-first" cows consume at least 40 percent less concentrate per day than cows in free-flow systems. This represents considerable savings in purchased feed costs. Guided traffic also allows for more customized feeding groups. After milking, cows can be sorted into different feeding zones based on production level, parity, stage of lactation or other desired criteria. Herds with milk-first barns typically utilize a post-selection system for management and veterinary actions and post-fresh cows.
Rations are formulated for milk-first barns mirror traditional TMR standards. Less purchased concentrate feed also allows producers to maximize their use of home-grown forages for maximum robotic profitability.
The milk-first approach also reduces the labor required to fetch cows that do not visit the robot frequently enough. The milking system also does not tie up cows that visit too frequently and must be refused. However, more timid and subservient cows may not fare as well in a guided system, and cows may spend more time standing in holding pens waiting to be milked.
Weigh your options
To identify the traffic system that will best suit your business model, it is important to identify your goals and priorities, for your dairy enterprise, your personal life and the future. Think about why you are adopting the technology, and what you hope to accomplish with it. You will have more flexibility in your options if you are building a new facility. At the same time, you need to choose your traffic system in advance, because details like barn design, ventilation and manure handling vary significantly between the two systems.
You should visit many other dairies using robotic milking systems as you develop your own plan. Allow for at least 12 months of research before finalizing your robotic milking decisions. And, of utmost importance, be sure to include options in your site plan to accommodate future expansions and the next generations.
For more information, contact Greg Larson, MIone multi-box robotic milking system expert with GEA Farm Technologies at (877) 973-2479, email: MIone.firstname.lastname@example.org, or go to: http://www.gea-farmtechnologies.com.