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Panelists address pros and cons of automated milking

Melissa Hart for Progressive Dairyman Published on 31 December 2018

Robotics have gained momentum in nearly every industry, and dairy technology is leading the charge. Several companies are successfully installing their robotic milking systems on dairy farms throughout North America.

A panel of producers, each operating with a different type of automated milking system, discussed the pros and cons of their experiences at the Great Lakes Regional Dairy Conference held in Mt. Pleasant, Michigan.

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The panel featured Bill Gordon, Gordons Roxburgh Farms, Ontario; Jeremy Higgins, Riedstra Dairy Ltd., Mendon, Michigan; Brian Houin, Homestead Dairy, Plymouth, Indiana; and Japheth Martin, Milky Way Dairy, New Paris, Indiana.

The operation at Gordons Roxburgh Farms runs 300 cows, along with all replacement heifers and 900 acres. The farm began using five GEA MIone robots in April 2016 and added another a year later. They plan to add two more robots in the near future as quota purchases allow and additional family members return to the farm.

The switch to the robots was a good one, Bill Gordon explained. “It’s going well, and the kids say we will never go back. We struggled with employees when we milked in a double-10 parallel.” He continued, “We are averaging 75 pounds (34 kilograms), and we are very happy.”

Riedstra Dairy was started more than 30 years ago with Al Riedstra, and today they milk 4,500 cows in a 72-stall rotary parlour, a double-25 parallel and eight DeLaval robots on two farms in Mendon, Michigan, and Rolling Prairie, Indiana.

Jeremy Higgins has been the dairy manager at Riedstra Dairy for four years and said with their 480-head robotic herd, they are averaging between 43 and 45 kilograms with 2.7 turns per cow.

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Brian Houin is the third generation and one of six family members managing Homestead Dairy in Plymouth, Indiana. They milk 3,200 cows and have a total of 4,200 head. A portion of the herd is milked using a 36-robot Lely system. The rest of the cows are milked in a traditional rotary parlour.

The cows in the robotic system are milked on average 3.1 times per day and are averaging 40 kilograms with 4 percent fat and a 3.2 percent protein. They have 12 robots dedicated to first-calf heifers, and the remaining 24 robots are for mature cows.

The Martin brothers – Micah, Japheth and Clement – run Milky Way Dairy in New Paris, Indiana. It began in 2016 after they branched off from their family farm and built a 250-cow dairy with room for 300 using an AMS Galaxy robotic system.

Their operation is unique in that they also bed the cows robotically and use a flush manure system in a cross-ventilation barn. They are averaging 36 kilograms per cow.

Why robots?

Reasons for switching to robots ranged from labour issues to accommodating the next generation. Gordon noted, “Our big driving factor was labour availability, and we wanted to be able to do other things and not have to be there at a certain time to milk cows.”

Higgins mentioned the desire for owner Al Riedstra to lead the industry into robotics as a reason for switching to robots. In addition, he wanted to milk more cows and robots was a good option for him.

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With a rotary parlour in the works, Houin knew they needed to improve efficiency. “Two weeks after [World Dairy] Expo a friend came to me and said I should really consider putting in some robots, and I thought he was nuts.

I decided I should listen to him since he was managing a 72-stall rotary,” he said. Houin thought the robots would tell a better story to the consumer; the cows seemed to be stress-free in robot barns. The fact robots can be installed in phases, and he did not have to purchase animals to fill it up right away, also appealed to him.

Japheth Martin also mentioned labour issues. “We didn’t want to have to hire a bunch of labour since we’ve never had to deal with outside labour,” he said. Martin included cow comfort as a reason for robots, saying, “Cow comfort in a robot barn cannot be beat.”

Feeding systems varied among the farms, with some using a formulated pellet versus a grain mix fed through the robots. Higgins said they have been feeding molasses through the robots, explaining that if something goes wrong with the pellet feeding system, they have molasses as a backup plan.

If the cows don’t hear the pellets falling through the feeder, they know there will still be molasses and that will entice them to enter the robots to be milked. Molasses also makes the pellets more palatable, and the higher-producing cows can consume more feed to support higher production.

Brand selection of the robots depended largely on service. The Gordons installed GEA and liked that they could manually attach the robot if a cow was having trouble. Higgins said, “Service was a big factor and, if you don’t have good service, you had better be really mechanically inclined to work on these robots.”

Houin said they looked at upfront and long-term maintenance costs and chose Lely. “We went with the one we thought would be the most cost-effective long-term. But having 36 robots, you learn pretty quickly how to fix things, and we have to be able to carry a lot of parts.” He continued, “One nice thing is: We have a service guy that, when we call, nine times out of 10 he can tell us how to fix it over the phone and doesn’t actually have to come out, and that’s been really beneficial as well.”

The Martins also looked at cost-effectiveness and chose Galaxy. Japheth said, “Every farmer [who] buys one will go to the same school as the dealer goes to – a five-day class – and learn everything there is to know about the robot. So we can do all our service ourselves. And another big reason [we chose this brand] was they are fully automatic, but we can also manually attach the cow if we need to.”

Labour savings versus capital outlay was discussed. Gordon mentioned the increase in minimum wage was difficult to pay with no end of increases in sight – thus, from a labour standpoint, they were glad to spend the money upfront for the robots. Houin said they have reduced their labour by 40 percent with the robots.

Chore time and working the cattle through herd health regimens called for a different mindset, according to Houin. He explained, “When we made the decision to put in robots, we had lots of detailed conversations on management of the cows. We decided we needed to throw everything we knew about managing cows out the window and start over.

On a conventional dairy, we lock up the cows after morning milking and, in the robot barn, we have separation pens, and we start sorting cows out at midnight, and everything is done on a daily basis except for hoof trimming.” Their herd health takes about three hours per day.

On Riedstra Dairy, Higgins said they perform herd health on Mondays, do their reproductive work on Thursdays, and the cattle are sorted through separation pens as well. “We have one guy who walks the pens and gives shots as needed, and the cattle are pretty calm,” he said. “If we send two guys in to walk the pens, it throws the cattle off, and they don’t like it.”

Day-to-day maintenance of the robots involves running them through their wash cycles and making sure there are no leaking hoses. Other than emergency calls and daily washing, they take about an hour per week to maintain. SCC and bacteria counts have been low, and state or provincial milk inspections have been routine for these panelists.

The biggest challenge when starting up their robotic operations was learning how to fetch the cows to get milked for the first 10 days or so but, in the words of Houin, “After the first 10 days, it was great.”

Higgins said they were challenged to fine-tune the right person in the right place, and Gordon concurred. He said, “It was a real learning curve for the people as well as the cows. At some point there’s going to be that cow that may never come, and we had a few older cows that never made the connection.”

The protocol for drying cows off was similar across the panel. They decrease their feed and then dry treat the cow and move them to the dry cow pen. Houin said, “We have seen some cows self-dry early. Their visits start going down, and that has been an interesting observation.”

Depending on the size of the farm, a constant presence needed in the barn varies. With the larger herds, the need for someone in the barn is necessary simply because of the calving activity. However, with smaller herds like the Martin family, they find themselves doing chores twice a day and checking cattle when needed.

When switching from a conventional dairy to the robots, Gordon noticed the advantage of not having to move cows to different pens. He said, “The cow is put into a pen, and she stays there her whole lactation. I think that is why we have an increase in production. The herd develops their social dynamics, and it’s done, and we aren’t disrupting them once or twice a week.”

Higgins said he believes cows are more able to reach their genetic potential in a robot facility, and Houin has observed a lot fewer injuries in their herd. Houin said, “Life for the cow in a robot herd seems to be a whole lot simpler, and they don’t have to deal with a lot of stress.  end mark

Melissa Hart is a freelance writer in North Adams, Michigan.

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