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Finding your dairy’s fit: Full vs. partial automation in the milking center

Steve Pretz for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 December 2018
Whether you choose full or partial automation, there are options to fit every herd.

When you hear about milking automation, you likely think of robots. But the reality is: The dairy industry has more choices than ever when it comes to milking automation.

These choices could be full automation with a robotic rotary or a box-style robotic milking barn, or partial automation with a conventional parlour with automated components.

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While all levels of automation can help reduce labour and improve efficiency, it’s important to understand the options available to help you make the best decision for your farm. Here are a few considerations to help you decide if full or partial automation is right for you.

Data do’s and don’ts

The first question to ask yourself when determining the automation needs for your farm is: “What am I doing for data today?” Data drives automation success and, for farms currently utilizing little or no data analysis, the data available with robotic milking can be overwhelming.

Partial automation technologies such as activity monitoring or milk metering can be a good first step for those with little background in data analysis. These technologies provide the high-level information you need to increase efficiencies without drowning in data.

If you’re ready to dive into fully automated milking technology, make sure you understand what data you have access to and have a plan to monitor, measure and act on that data.

With robotic milking, cows are monitored for milk quality, milking speed and times, rumination, breeding, health and more. This data provides improved accuracy of information, earlier detection and treatment, and better cow management to increase efficiency and profitability.

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Manage for success

When making your selection between full or partial automation, it’s essential to look at all options and think about your ideal management style to ensure long-term success on your farm.

Partial automation with a conventional parlour and added automated teat prep and post-dipping is ideal if you aren’t ready to jump into full-scale robotic milking. This level of automation allows you to minimize labour and maximize throughput all while maintaining your current management style.

Switching to full milking automation with a box-style robot can be a significant management adjustment compared to conventional milking. However, this type of automation provides more flexibility with no scheduled milking times and allows you to move from hands-on milking to a higher-level management role.

Robotic rotary parlours, on the other hand, give you the key advantages of automated milking while still maintaining a similar lifestyle and management style as conventional milking.

Partial automation can bring efficiencies without the investment of robotic milking.

Labour woes

As labour becomes increasingly scarce, both full and partial milking automation can help solve labour issues by locking in certain costs and replacing everyday tasks with robotic technology. Labour can be reduced or reallocated to other farm tasks, providing significant labour savings.

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For example, one farm milking in a 60-stall robotic rotary parlour with 2,250 cows milked three times a day had an annual labour cost estimated at $168,000.

The same herd size milking with a conventional rotary had an annual labour cost estimated at $525,600. Even with a $2-per-hour increase in wages for the robotic rotary, the farm saw a labour savings of $357,600 annually.

Partial automation with automatic teat prep and post-dipping also allow you to streamline the milking process and reduce or reallocate labour. Using the same farm example, implementing an automatic teat scrubber and automatic post-dipping system would save the farm $131,400 in labour annually.

Profit drivers

Making the move to automation is like any other business decision on your dairy. You must ask yourself whether the initial investment costs and management changes you will make will result in a positive return on your investment for both you and your cows.

When selecting the best level of automation for you, it’s important to consider what drives the profit on your farm. Consider how full or partial automation will impact these prime profit drivers:

  • Breeding
  • Feeding
  • Cow comfort
  • Milk quality
  • Milk production

While costs vary widely for fully robotic milking, depending on the type of robot, the number of boxes or stalls needed and the need for new or retrofitted facilities, full automation is a significantly higher investment than partial automation, with paybacks on labour savings or increased productivity occurring in the years to come.

Partial automation allows you to gain some of the key benefits of automating portions of the milking process with improved milk quality and reduced labour without the high up-front costs of fully automated robotic milking systems.

Facilities

Switching to milking automation is not just about the what but also the where. Facility considerations play a large role in the decision between partial and full automation.

Ask yourself: Can your current facility be adapted to full or partial automation technologies? Do you need to build new facilities? Fully automated robotic milking will require a more in-depth plan and higher up-front facility costs than partial automation. Partial automation can typically be incorporated into your current setup with few or no changes to your facilities.

Also, think about the future of your operation when determining facility needs. Are you planning to increase herd size? What are the plans for the next generation on the farm? These considerations can help you decide whether full or partial automation is right for you.

Automating the milking process is a big decision, both from an investment and management perspective. Whether you choose fully automated robotic milking or partial automation in a conventional parlour, it’s important to know the options available to help find the best fit for your farm.  end mark

PHOTO: Whether you choose full or partial automation, there are options to fit every herd.

PHOTO: Partial automation can bring efficiencies without the investment of robotic milking. Photos courtesy of GEA.

Steve Pretz
  • Steve Pretz

  • Director of Large Project Sales
  • GEA
  • Email Steve Pretz

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