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Robotic Milking Picks Up Speed

16:34PM Feb 25, 2015

No longer a novelty, robotic milking becomes mainstream.

While an estimated 25,000 to 30,000 robotic milking systems (RMS) operate worldwide, about 500 are in place in the U.S.—and that number is growing, says Marcia Endres, professor and Extension dairy specialist with the University of Minnesota. 

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Most RMS in the world today are single-box systems with a robotic arm serving one to five boxes. An RMS can be a free-flow traffic system that allows cows to operate on their own instincts, enticing them with the tasty treat they learn to find in the milking box. 

The other main RMS style is a guided-flow system that takes a “milk-first, feed-second” approach by pre-selecting cows and sending them to the RMS through a series of selection gates.

For nearly two years, Endres and University of Minnesota colleague Jim Salfer have been conducting a study with 52 RMS farms in Minnesota and Wisconsin. What the two researchers have found is that dairy producers turn to RMS for several reasons:

  • Improved quality of life, especially more flexibility with schedules;
  • More efficient labor management, which results from needing fewer humans to milk cows, and reduced labor costs;
  • Less strain on human health, as milkers move away from the repetitive movements that often cause back, knee, wrist and hand problems;
  • Upgraded technology that provides a wealth of information about each cow at each milking;
  • Consistency from machines over the variability of human labor.

Harvesting 5,000 lb. of milk per robot per day should be the goal of any robotic system. 

The labor savings from RMS can add up quickly for dairy producers. One Minnesota dairy in the study by Endres and Salfer installed a robotic system in 2012 to milk its 300 cows. In just one year, the dairy’s average labor costs dropped from $2.22 per cwt to $1.60 per cwt. It also reduced the dairy’s number of employees from six to three.

Milking efficiency also increases. The average milking time on an RMS is 5.5 minutes, Endres adds. 
Endres points to five important goals of RMS:

  • More than 2.8 milkings per cow per day;
  • Less than five failed milkings per robot per day;
  • More than 1.5 hours of free time on the robot per day for cleaning;
  • Keeping “fetch” cows (those that don’t naturally head into the RMS on their own) instances to five to 10 cows per robot per day or less; 
  • Milk production at more than 5,000 lb. per robot per day. Achieving 4,000 lb. is OK but 5,000 lb. is excellent, Endres says.

Feeding cows at the appropriate levels for their milk production is a key component of RMS. Enticing cows to visit the RMS regularly and frequently is accomplished by providing a partial mixed ration (PMR) at the bunk and offering additional concentrate at the milking station.

“The benefits with RMS are that you won’t over-condition cows because you are feeding them for what they need, and you’re rewarding the high cows with the energy they need,” Endres says. “You’ll have more cows in a positive energy balance and gaining weight post-calving.”

Three years ago, Joel Lepple, Beaver Dam, Wis., installed an RMS on his family’s 300-Holstein operation. He and his family have seen all the benefits that robotic milking promises—plus calmer cows and 
increased milk production. 

The Lepples installed two Lely Astronaut robotic milking systems as well as a robotic feed pusher and two mechanical rotating cow brushes. 

The Lepples’ cows average 2.83 milkings per day. Pre-RMS, the Lepples’ herd produced 65 lb. of milk. Today, with robotic milking, the dairy’s output has climbed to 78 lb. to 80 lb. of milk per cow per day.

Joel’s son, Brent, says the robotic technology has been a real benefit. He urges producers not to shy away from adopting the technology. “Accept it,” Brent says. “It makes life easier.”

“Most current users are satisfied with their decision” to install RMS, Endres adds. “Dairies can expand without hiring more labor, and producers can have a more flexible schedule.”