When we started down the milking robot road five years ago, there were plenty of people who considered this the end of our four-generation run at dairy farming.
But instead of failure, we have emerged with better cow health, better reproductive efficiency, more milk production, less labour hassles and a better quality of life. It’s what we had hoped for and much more.
My intent is for those reading this to benefit from the lessons we have learned. To our knowledge, we are the longest-running robot dairy farm in the Western U.S. We offer the following tips to help you hold onto your money and your health.
- Don’t be the one to break in new technology. New models of anything, from tractors to robots, need time to be fine-tuned. Even Canadian models aren’t the same as those in the U.S. Let someone else do the research and development.
- If your dealer doesn’t encourage you to look at robot brands other than what they sell, they aren’t in it for a long-term relationship. They are in it for a sale. You need a partner moving ahead, not a salesman.
- Visit as many robot farms as you can. It’s a big investment, so find the time. Look for an operation similar to yours – type of cows, pasture or confinement, weather conditions, size, organic versus conventional, etc.
- Barn layout is critical. I’ve seen retrofits that were penny-wise and pound foolish. I’ve also seen brand new barns that were train wrecks.
A well-planned barn is critical to the hope for labour savings of robots, keeping a clean barn and getting adequate visits to the milking robot.
- Free-flow wins. We have seen it on our farm and the Journal of Dairy Science has published a study backing this very notion: Letting a cow do her thing without a plethora of sort gates equates to 3 to 5 pounds (1.4 to 2.3 kilograms) of milk.
- Robots are basically the same cost across brands. The differences are in the technology you are buying. I know dairymen who have bought lower-priced systems and then didn’t have the means to adequately manage their herd.
Talking with other users is how you learn what you need.
- 2.4 milkings per day is equal to 2X-conventional milkings. Because visits are calculated on a 24-hour rolling average, anything under 2.5 is really not getting you where you want to be.
There is profitability to be gained in the milk between 2.8 and 3.2 milkings per day. That is what you should be shooting for.
- Every salesman will tell you that robots will milk 60 cows each. What they should be talking about is how much milk it can harvest in 24 hours. What are the top herds doing on their brand of robot?
There are many variables here based on your particular herd. How calm are they? Will they stand still to attach? What is their milk speed?
Are they a high-component herd? Thick milk just doesn’t flow as fast. All of these are reasons why 60 cows per robot may not be accurate.
- What is behind the company you are buying from? What is offered post-sale should you need assistance, such as nutrition assistance or milk quality issues?
What does the network of consultants backing the machine look like? More importantly, what do the farmers you visit say about the help they have received at the manufacturer level after the sale?
- You can start preparing for robots way before you ever consider signing a contract. Begin by breeding for robot traits, such as square udders, medium teat length and calm, fast-milking cows.
This will be an asset to your operation even if you decide to stay conventional. Though most “robot” sire lists aren’t much help, you can find milk speed and temperament numbers using Canadian data for the bulls you already use.
Additionally, consider robotic feed pushers and rumination collars that can tie into your future robots. These two things will help you become more profitable in the meantime and lessen the outlay down the road.
- One thing I see tragically overlooked is how a footbath is implemented into a robotic operation. It is frowned upon to have it directly at the exit of a robot because it slows down the flow of the machine; however, healthy feet are a key component to cows being able to make visits to the robot.
So whatever you do, don’t forget to give careful consideration to this part of the planning process.
- Pasture does work with robots. People say this all the time, but we have no problem maintaining 2.7 milkings per day while on pasture, and our herd has access to pasture 18 hours per day when the weather allows. It’s all in the settings.
- Your favourite parlour/cooling/manure guy may not be the best robot tech. Sure, he can MacGyver a vacuum pump to get you through the rest of milking, but is he the guy you want running down a circuit board problem?
A good robot tech is meticulous and methodical. See who your dealer is utilizing for robot services and ask what schooling they have received.
- Nutrition work should be done by someone who understands robots and preferably has experience with other robot herds.
This directly affects how well you start up your robots, what types of feed will flow through the machine, how you change the rations as you make gains in your herds, how many visits to the robot you achieve and how efficient you are with your feed usage.
- How will you handle fresh and special-needs cows? We recommend having an area you can sort to directly from the robot that still allows cows to access the robot, even when they are in the sort area.
Whatever you decide to do, be sure you at least consider this design aspect.
- Don’t overcrowd your barn. Bed and bunk space recommendations still stand no matter what a salesman tells you. Additionally, overcrowding a robot is not helpful.
It makes it hard for timid cows to get time on the machine, and it doesn’t allow enough time should you need to do a repair. We have dropped cow numbers while milk in the tank has remained the same.
- Maintenance saves night calls. Preventative maintenance must be done on robots. If you are not the type who is into preventative maintenance, be prepared to pay the dealer to do them, or have the phone ring.
It’s not a lot of time or hassle to stay on top of, but it must be done if you intend to improve your quality of life.
Kurt Mizee farms with his father, Bart, and grandfather, Rudy Fenk, and their families in Tillamook, Oregon, where they have been grazing and milking cows since 1918.
PHOTO: With cows having access to automatic milking systems 24 hours a day, producers who adopt this technology should aim to get between 2.8 and 3.2 milkings per day. Photo by Mike Dixon.
- Tilla-Bay Farms Inc.
- Email Kurt Mizee
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