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Focus on the three M’s to produce quality milk with robots

Chris Elliott for Progressive Dairyman Published on 02 March 2016
Robotic milking

Robotic milking machines have been in North America for about a decade. When they were first introduced, people wondered: Do they actually work? Are they just a fad? Are they cost-effective? Are they just for small dairies? These questions have been answered.

They do work, they are not a passing fad, and they can be cost-effective for dairies of any size. As more units were installed, it became evident that there is a learning curve associated with them. Some setbacks with milk quality can happen during the transition.

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I have found that three key factors – mindset, management and maintenance – play a large role in milk quality. Addressing these key factors will help produce high-quality milk throughout the life of the robot.

A proper mindset is the first step to making quality milk. Dairy producers who want to make quality milk will find a way to make it happen. A conventional client of mine milks in an older facility. Their somatic cell count (SCC) for years was around 300,000.

They believed they could not produce low-SCC milk because of the condition of the facility. One year, they decided that they wanted to lower their SCC. They have been around 150,000 for almost 10 years.

Believing is the key to achieving. Changing equipment type does not change the underlying mindset of the owner. We must realize that if a producer had less-than-perfect milk quality under a conventional system, the quality will likely be imperfect with robots as well. Being innovative, adaptable, willing to learn and accept new things are a must for making high-quality milk, especially with robotics.

Management is the discipline that helps convert the desire for excellence into practice. Management is what puts together programs and systems designed to achieve the farm’s milk quality goals. The use of milking robots does not eliminate the need for management.

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Robots are not designed so you can set them and forget them. In fact, less labour means that more management is needed in other areas. Less hands-on time with the cows, for example, means more disciplined management is required to watch over them.

Management protocols for the following are critical: daily checks, exterior cleaning, barn and stall cleaning, managing inventories of cleaning products, and detection and treatment of mastitis. Some of these tasks are easy with robots; others are harder. Daily checks are easy to do but are also easy to skip when things get busy.

Good management prevents this from happening. Barn and stall cleaning can be more challenging with robots because the cows may never leave their pen. Good managers will plan ahead for these changes. They will also evaluate and adapt as needed.

Management of data is also a key ingredient in quality milk production. Data can be a wonderful tool – if it is used. If it isn’t used, it can give a false sense of security. We might tend to think the robots are keeping track of things so we don’t have to. This is a recipe for disaster.

The robots record the data. We need to act upon it. Cows that show up on lists with high conductivity or other problems need to be checked. Data is most effective when used to proactively fix small items. It is least effective when used reactively to find out what caused a large problem.

Robots produce a tremendous amount of data. This can be intimidating. My suggestion is to start small. Learn to use the most basic and critical reports first. Then widen your horizons as you become more familiar with the system.

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Maintenance is the third key to producing quality milk with robots. Robots ensure consistent milking procedures. Maintenance ensures that the procedures are consistently good. I believe there are three types of maintenance: provisional, scheduled and emergency.

Provisional maintenance is a set of quick checks or repairs that are not on the scheduled service lists. They are often done daily. I find that if these checks are done, many milk quality problems can be avoided. Some of the provisional checks that enhance milk quality are:

  • Daily checking of teat prep (Is there a germicide present and are the teats clean?)

  • Daily checking of wear items like brushes, gaskets, hoses

  • Daily checking of the post-dip coverage

  • Daily cleaning

  • Regular check of cleaning product levels

  • Review of reports provided by the robot

I strongly recommend that someone watch each robot milk one or two cows every day. This will avoid a lot of problems.

Scheduled maintenance is usually done by the local dealer. However, sometimes the dealer and dairy can share the load. The scheduled maintenance lists are usually fairly detailed, but I have found some things that can get missed. These items include non-robot parts like the bulk tanks, plate coolers and filters.

Crossover pieces between the robot and other pieces of equipment should also be checked. A good example of this is the gasket that connects the robot with the bulk tank. It is not on the list of gaskets that comes with the robot, so in some cases it does not get changed like it should.

Emergency maintenance is fairly self-explanatory. This is a straightforward thing if you live close to a dealer and work with a dealer that has a lot of units installed.

It gets more intricate if there is a small installed base or the dealer is a long way off. In these situations, it is best to plan ahead. Have the spare parts handy and learn how to install them if need be.

Robotic milking systems can and do produce high-quality milk. Often there are small setbacks as the dairy goes through a learning curve during the transition. If we plan ahead and approach milk quality with the proper mindset, management and maintenance, we can avoid these setbacks and produce consistent high-quality milk.  PD

PHOTO: Robotic milker. Photo provided by Ray Merritt.

 Chris Elliott is a Field Representative with Ecolab Food & Beverage. Email Chris Elliott. 

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