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Seven tips for managing robots in sand-bedded barns

Progressive Dairyman Editor Peggy Coffeen Published on 30 April 2018
Dairy parlor

Sand bedding is known to be great for cow comfort and tough on equipment, especially when it comes to the moving parts and pieces of a robotic milking system, but there are a few things dairy farmers can to do minimize wear and tear.

“Sand is the gold standard in bedding but problematic in every brand of robotic milking system,” Steve Pretz says. As director for GEA’s large project sales and Dairy Pro Q sales, he is familiar with both the benefits and challenges that come along with sand-bedded stalls.

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Dairy producer Randy Nigh from Viroqua, Wisconsin, agrees. “There are definite advantages with sand bedding for the cows,” he says. However, it wasn’t long after installing two robots to milk his 113-cow herd he realized just how quickly the abrasive particles cause additional deterioration, especially to the cords that attach teat cups to the robot.

Sand can cause further damage by depositing in between mechanisms. Daan Stehouwer, regional service manager and master product specialist for Lely, notes, “Our cups tilt, and those parts wear faster as sand gets between the moving parts.”

However, a few management tweaks can minimize sand’s effects on equipment. Here are seven pieces of advice for making this bedding source work in a robot barn.

1. Replace ropes with chains

Nigh’s robot originally came with rope cords that attached to the teat cups, but he found the rope frayed to the point of breaking and needed to be re-secured every six to seven days. He solved this problem by purchasing a chain kit through the robot company.

“You can buy individual chains separately, but because we use guides with ropes, we replaced those and did the chain conversion at the same time,” Nigh says. He estimates the cost was less than $500 for his two robots, which included the chains, guides at the base of the teat cups and labour.

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Stehouwer encourages others with sand to do the same. “We strongly advise to convert the robots to the chain kits,” he says. “This is an easy installation alternative which costs a few hundred dollars per robot.”

Nigh says the investment was well worth it. “Daily maintenance is now very brief when we don’t have to mess with shortening ropes,” he says.

2. Establish a routine udder singeing protocol

Pretz points out hair on the udder and legs can harbour large quantities of sand that end up being deposited in the robot. “Sand comes in via the cow’s udder,” he says. “If singeing is not done, the sand load brought to the robot is extremely high.”

Nigh says singeing was primarily a wintertime task when he milked in a tiestall barn, but now he sees the benefits of udder hair removal every few months. “Udder singeing is advantageous,” he says. “We do it about three times a year, but more frequently would be better.”

He also trims tails to cut down on sand carried in on switches and is putting in brisket boards to keep cows cleaner.

3. Keep sand in the stalls

Nigh recognizes stall maintenance as a critical point for keeping sand where it needs to be and preventing excessive amounts from ending up in his robots. He is looking at a sand saver as a possible solution.

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In the meantime, he sees the benefits of diligent bed maintenance the old-fashioned way: with a rake. “It’s a hand-tool job,” he says, “but it gets the sand where it needs to be.”

Pretz says the tendency in box-style systems is to maintain and groom beds less often in order to avoid disrupting the cows, but that is a compromise. How beds will be maintained should be part of the conversation on cow flow during the robot planning process.

“Sand use is well documented, but maintenance, grooming and cleanliness has to be addressed and thought about in a daily chore plan,” Pretz adds. “If you want an effective robot in a free-flow design where a cow manages her own life, you have to think about how you will manage the beds so cows are not disturbed.”

4. Pay attention to sand particle size

According to Pretz, “Particle size is a big issue” when it comes to sand, and it can vary from small to pebble-sized pieces. “In our experience, recycled sand becomes rounded and less abrasive,” he notes.

On the other hand, virgin sand can be rougher around the edges. “Most box-style systems are smaller farms, and they have a large tendency to use virgin sand when it is local and affordable,” Pretz says.

5. Spray equipment down more often

Rinsing down robots helps remove residual sand from settling into nooks and crannies and causing problems.

“We spray the robots down any time we are in there, so four to five times a day,” Nigh says. “We spray on top, a little underneath and then rinse the sand out.”

He typically performs this task in between cows coming in to be milked and believes it is worthwhile. “It only takes a couple of seconds, but it provides a good pathway for the sand to leave,” Nigh says.

6. Proactive maintenance

Stehouwer recommends producers ask their service technicians to account for additional preventative maintenance in the planning stages to ensure optimal performance once robots are in operation.

This may mean planning to do a “preventive swap” of component parts about once every 12 to 18 months. “We recognize sand is good for cows – but not awesome for other components,” he says. This proactive step takes less than one hour per robot.

7. Focus on calmer cows

A relaxed cow is less likely to lift a leg while the robot is attaching the unit, and this can make a difference in wear and tear. “It will help to have cows kick as little as possible, as their hooves are like sandpaper,” Stehouwer says. Minimize stress by promoting a calm, quiet barn environment and limiting distractions and interactions.  end mark

PHOTO: Dairy parlor. Photo by Karen Lee.

Peggy Coffeen
  • Peggy Coffeen

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