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Robot farms: Take your milking frequency up a notch

Paul Berdell for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 May 2017
Robotic milker

With many things in life, more is not always better. But when it comes to milking frequency in a robotic milking system, more is almost always better.

Increasing the average milkings per cow per day in a robotic milking system can lead to improved efficiency and milk production. Both of which ultimately impact your bottom line.

But when we say “increased milking frequency,” what does that mean?

The goal should be to average 2.7 to 3 milkings per cow per day. A milking frequency below this benchmark merits a closer look to see what opportunities exist to increase frequency.

To ensure your farm is meeting this goal, focus on the following three areas: robot efficiency, barn layout and quality nutrition programming.

Importance of feed

One of the biggest influences on the number of times cows milk per day is nutrition. Providing feed in the robot during milking delivers an incentive for cows to visit the robot more often.

Pellet quality, ingredients, quantity and palatability are all important factors that will impact the cows’ willingness to visit the robot. Poor-quality feed can discourage cows from visiting the robot, decreasing the average number of milkings per cow per day.

Cows producing more milk will have a higher drive to visit the robot and increased demand to eat feed offered during milking.

Feeding a high-quality ration balanced for your robotic milking herd in addition to production-based feeding of pellets in the robot will help increase milk production and, in turn, increase the frequency of visits to the robot.

Age-based grouping

First-calf heifers can have surprisingly high robot usage, but they are often mixed in groups with older cows. This can deter them from milking by boss cows or overcrowding around the robot and an increase in competition.

One way to remedy this is by having a separate robot for first-calf heifers. Depending on the size of your herd, cows that have slow milk-out or have timid personalities could also be included in the first-calf heifer group.

Separating younger animals allows for less competition around the robot and gives young cows more time to get acclimated to robotic milking. With less competition and greater access to the robot, herds have the potential to increase an average of 2 kilograms per day in the young cow group.

Having a separate young cow group also allows for more targeted feeding. When mature cows and heifers are grouped together, typically the diet is balanced towards the needs of the mature cows.

Providing a ration specifically targeted towards young cow needs can increase milk production, driving them to visit the robot more often.

Robot access

Easy access to the robot is a critical factor in the frequency of visits per cow per day. Obstacles interfering in the path to the robot and difficult entryways can deter cows from milking.

Cows also need to have adequate space between the robot and surrounding areas. If holding pens or the area in front of the robot are too small, cows will be discouraged from entering.

Access to the robot can also be encouraged through proper care and management of your herd’s feet and legs. Cows need to have good locomotion and sound hooves to be comfortable walking back and forth to the robot.

Scheduling regular hoof trimmings and providing access to footbaths can prevent issues from developing.

Milking speed

Getting cows to the robot is the first step. The next step is getting them through the robot as quickly as possible. Slow milking time reduces cow throughput and decreases the amount of milkings achieved each day.

From entry to exit, the milking process should take, on average, seven to eight minutes per cow. It’s recommended that herds should strive for less than seven minutes and start to investigate potential issues when milking length exceeds eight minutes.

Milking unit attachment speed can greatly influence the amount of time per cow spent in the robot. Milking units that locate the teats quickly and efficiently will reduce the time per cow spent in the robot, freeing up extra available time for other cows.

Downtime

Unscheduled downtime can throw a wrench in your milking frequency average. If the robot isn’t functioning properly, it can slow everything down or even stop milking completely while the equipment is fixed.

Working with your dealer to schedule regular maintenance checks will ensure equipment is running properly and reduce the amount of unscheduled downtime.

Even with proper maintenance, there is still some downtime needed each day for scheduled cleaning and maintenance. The remaining time is considered usage time, or the amount of time available on the robot each day to milk cows.

For maximum robot efficiency, robots should be utilizing 90 percent of the total usage time.

Work with your robotic milking specialist to determine how you can increase the average number of milkings per cow per day for improved efficiency and production.  end mark

PHOTO: Easy access and adequate space between the robot and surrounding areas are critical factors in increasing frequency of milking. Photo courtesy of GEA.

Paul Berdell is a robotic milking sales specialist at GEA. Email Paul Berdell.

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