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Budgeting for a Robotic Milking System

Oct 28, 2013

Dairy producers often overlook three areas when planning and budgeting for robotic milking facilities.

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

Investing in a robotic milking facility is a big decision to make for today’s dairy producer. There are many advantages to these types of facilities from both a herd management and lifestyle perspective. Yet, in order to be successful with a robotic milking system, it takes proper planning and budgeting.

MM5 8801   robotic milker
Bedding choice, manure handling equipment and site planning for the future are three areas commonly overlooked when dairy producers are putting budgets and plans together for robotic milking facilities. Photo courtesy of GEA Farm Technologies.

The first determination when planning for a robotic milking facility is to decide whether or not you have the borrowing capacity to build a new facility. Your banker will become a key team player in your decision making process, as you explore many facets of what your facility and management style will consist of.

After you have discussed business with your banker, you will need to ask yourself if you are going to operate the barn in a free-flow traffic environment or if you’re going to operate in a milk-first environment.

With free-flow traffic, the cow has the ability to go from the free stall, to the feed lane, to the robot to eat and be milked and then lay down. The cow can do each of these steps when she chooses to do so.

A milk-first environment utilizes technology and software to pre- and post-select cows that are eligible for specific management activities. For example, in pre-selection only cows that are eligible to be milked based on pre-set criteria can go the robot. With post-selection, if a cow needs to be hoof-trimmed or dry-treated, the system will automatically sort her.

Advantages exist for both systems. The largest advantage is less purchased feed cost in a milk-first system. In the milk-first system the amount of grain fed in the robotic milking stall is limited. This means the dairy producer can feed a true total mixed ration (TMR) at the feed bunk. In a free-flow traffic facility, the majority of the energy in the ration is fed in the robotic milking stall. As a result, it’s not uncommon that purchased feed cost in a free-flow traffic facility is 50% to 60% higher than in a milk-first system.

Once the determination has been made that the facility will be free-flow or milk-first, bedding material and the manure handling system need to be decided. The type of bedding chosen has a direct impact on manure handling equipment and barn design. Cows in the robotic facility never leave their group; cows are laying down, walking to the milking robotic center and eating at the bunk. As a result, manure drop placement and the mechanical manure handling devices need to be chosen wisely.

From a budgetary aspect, bedding choice impacts how much investment the facility will need to make in its manure system. For example, one facility that is being installed has chosen to bed with mattresses and sawdust. The manure handling system consists of an automatic scraping system to the manure drop where the manure will gravity-flow to a 3.5 million gallon pit.

In contrast another facility with the same milking set-up has chosen sand bedding. This manure handling system consists of scrapers, a crossed gutter channel, a mechanical device to move the manure to a small holding pit, an agitator, a manure pump and piping to pump the manure from a pit to a long-term storage area. As you can see the investment in manure handling equipment varies significantly depending upon bedding choice.

Dairy producers need to put a concerted effort into understanding the manure handling system that will be best for their robotic milking facility. The manure experts should be included in the discussion from the very beginning. However, many times they are brought in at the end, when plans are already in the works. This is why team planning and working with a total solutions provider are key elements to facility design.

Outside of bedding choice and manure handling equipment, site planning for your future is the third area that I see commonly overlooked when dairy producers are putting budgets and plans together for robotic milking facilities. When you start working through the planning process for a new facility, it’s extremely important to rely on field experts to guide you through the difficult decisions.

When putting together a budget for a robotic milking facility, take into consideration what the operation might look like in 10 years. You need to perform a site plan to answer the following questions:
• Are there areas of growth?
• How much will I spend in excavating?
• Can the dairy be expanded and what would the operation look like at that future herd size?
• How will my manure system work?
• How does the barn placement effect ventilation?
• Where is my feed storage?

Cow comfort and cow longevity within the robotic facility are typically the dairyman’s vision and value for their new facility. So, one must have vision of what the facility will look like but also have the ability to work out the details of the specific equipment in the barn.

Understanding all of these areas and scenarios GEA Farm Technologies can assist in putting together a plan and budget that works for your total solutions MIone dairy operation, today and in the future.

For more information, contact Greg Larson, MIone multi-box robotic milking system expert with GEA Farm Technologies at (877) 973-2479, email: MIone.na@gea.com, or go here.

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