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Milking parlour or milking robots? Consider the differences

Whitney Davis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 29 December 2017

Since I sell milking robots as well as parlours, I often have the opportunity to discuss the differences with dairies considering a change.

The motivation to upgrade milking equipment or facilities can be to milk more cows, add beneficial technologies, reduce labour, improve quality of life or enhance the owners’ quality of work (freeing up their time to do more valuable activities).

The best return on investment is typically realized when the change increases efficiencies, improves results and makes the operation more competitive. If you’re not sure if changes are really needed, I suggest you ask yourself three simple questions:

  1. Are you satisfied with the results you get today?

  2. Is what it takes to get those results acceptable?

  3. Will these conditions be true in the future?

If any answer is no, I suggest you look at making some changes, and probably quite soon. There’s never a wrong time to become more efficient.

To develop options to help a dairy make their best decision to invest in robots or a parlour, I discover the dairy owners’ challenges, goals and project budget. We may also discuss the option of retrofitting an existing barn for robots versus building a new barn.

Considerable time is usually spent visiting experienced robot operators to see the equipment working and, more importantly, to talk with the management about their specific results with robots.

This allows for a good contrast to herds managed conventionally. Since a large investment is being considered for equipment and facilities that will be used for years, it’s wise to take the time to become well educated.

Building cost comparison

Parlours require a large building to house the parlour equipment, equipment room and holding area, and the square footage needed is substantially larger than in a robotic barn.

To calculate the needed square footage of a parlour building, multiply the herd size by a factor of six for a parallel and eight for a rotary parlour. Milkhouse space and freestall lying space for cows is the same for robots or parlours.

In contrast, robots are incorporated into the freestall barn, with one side of the robots located in a small enclosure (the robot room). This protects the equipment from freezing and isolates the “milk side” from the barn side, like a milking parlour, to satisfy milk quality regulations.

Multiple robots can be placed in the same robot room, in a parallel or in-line configuration or both, to minimize space used. Open space in the barn in front of the robots is needed to allow for good cow traffic to and from the robots.

For robots, the square footage ratio of the building to cows can be found by multiplying the herd size by a factor of two or three, so building costs for parlours are at least double and up to triple that for robots in square footage alone.

Don’t forget to add in all of the extra infrastructure costs of this larger parlour area since there’s a lot of cost in the additional steel, wood, concrete, drainage, manure systems, ventilation, heating, cow cooling, electrical, water supply, etc., to create the parlour facility.

What’s the difference for the cows?

Spend a little time in a robot barn and you soon realize the very noticeable differences. Dale Hemminger, Hemdale Farms, says, “In the barn, it’s the cows’ world.” Hemminger has been operating with robots since 2007 and currently milks 1,200 cows entirely with robots.

Cows are usually much calmer, cleaner, friendlier and relaxed in a robot barn than those observed in any parlour barn setting. Cows do not react negatively to people coming into their pen. In fact, they often don’t even get up.

Robot barn cows realize greater resting time, additional periods of eating and ruminating, have less heat stress and better hoof health than in a parlour environment. Why? Because they don’t leave the pen; they’re not standing long periods on concrete in a holding area; and they have much less contact with people.

The impact of human involvement with cows should not be underestimated. The evidence of this is the fact that robot dairies have the best performance numbers on Sundays, because that’s the day that typically sees the least human contact with the cows.

Understandably, fewer cull cows and higher pregnancy rates are also quite common on robot dairies.

Labour savings/asset investment

The most obvious cost savings in comparing robots to a parlour is in saved wages for the milking task. Other barn work with cows remains. At today’s wages, the average breakeven point on robots is seven to 10 years.

I have seen instances where the reduced wages alone have offset the robot payment entirely or by a much more substantial percentage, resulting in a faster payback.

With humans, you pay for a task done last week. With robots, each equipment payment is an investment in an asset that will perform for 15 years or more. Considering this, ask yourself if you’d rather manage equipment or people.

On a large parlour, a double-30 for example, the equipment, building and labour costs over 10 years roughly equals the cost to buy robots to do the same job. In larger herds (500 or more cows), the upfront costs for robotic equipment is definitely higher than a parlour, but the robots always win the economic contest beyond seven to 10 years.

An investment in robotic equipment can be viewed as buying your labour upfront. Robots provide a means to transition out of the old parlour over time or, as the herd grows, to spread out fixed costs. Other labour savings can include accurate heat detection, earlier recognition of cow health issues and improved hoof health.

Resale values

Robots have higher stall usage efficiency than any parlour, which translates to a more efficient use of capital. Robot turn rates average eight cows per stall per hour, while a very well equipped and managed parlour tops out about six, and most average much less.

In the last 10 years, I’ve seen very few used robots become available in the U.S., which makes resale values high and reduces risk. One robot dairy customer who sold his 10-year-old robots when upgrading to a new model received half of what he paid for them (with 80,000 hours use), and these units have lots of life left!

Robots are modular, so they’re easily disconnected and moved. For parlour equipment, it’s like building a house; it’s not built to come apart later. Parlours have a lot of steel built into concrete, so it’s a permanent installation that can be difficult and time-consuming to move. By contrast, 10-year-old parlour equipment is typically worth 20 percent at best of its new value.

It pays to do your homework

Every dairy is different in terms of size, financial situation, results, challenges, goals, etc. Visit multiple operations to evaluate various management strategies, and compare different equipment and options.

Make an informed analysis of your operation to compare your present scenario to what it would be after the proposed changes. Work with a dairy equipment adviser who has experience in parlours and also has substantial robot experience. Use a likewise knowledgeable financial consultant.

Plan ahead, discover the facts and question opinions and experience. There are numerous options and considerations, and not all buildings or equipment are the same. Consider your choices carefully and verify what you’re told.

Look for long-term results on multiple operations. Don’t assume; robots have been ruled out of consideration because people “heard” incorrect information.

This important decision can and should take time. That’s time well spent, and it’s always better to do things right instead of fast. Those who do their homework usually make the best choices for the long term.

Think you might need a change? Evaluate your situation with the three key questions outlined above, and ask yourself if you’d rather manage equipment or people. Consider your situation, future and options carefully.  end mark

For 10 years, Whitney Davis has planned and sold more than 50 robotic dairy operations in New York, and has been in the dairy equipment business since 1993.

Whitney Davis
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