Robotic milking setups have dairymen talking

NORTH CANTON, Ohio – Everyone is talking about robotic milkers, but few dairymen think the units could make them money – right now.

The idea of cows milking themselves intrigues every dairy farmer who is tied to the barn twice or three times a day, 365 days a year. And it was that interest that drew many to the Northeast Ohio Dairy Management Conference in North Canton March 7 to hear from Joe Huey, an engineer with DeLaval, one of the manufacturers plowing new ground with robotics in Europe.

“It’s exciting; it’s something new,” said Ashtabula County dairyman John Kampf, who milks in a partnership with his nephew, Kevin. “It’s the reason we came today, to learn more about it.”

Kampf, who is milking 250 head, said the technology is still too expensive for him to seriously consider right now, but he expects that will change within the next decade.

“New technology is changing so fast,” Kampf said, “and this is one of the new technologies that’s coming.”

DeLaval is one of at least eight companies making robotic milkers that have placed an estimated 1,200 units in Europe. None are approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in the United States, although at least two – one in Wisconsin and one in Pennsylvania – have been installed under a pilot provision.

Not cheap.

The first question everyone asks is, “how much?” Huey said a single DeLaval Voluntary Milking System unit, which can handle 50-60 cows, runs $183,400, which includes a one-year service contract.

Beyond the first year, a service contract for a single unit is $4,000 per year; two units, $3,500 per year, which includes parts and labor. DeLaval maintenance specialists make regular scheduled service visits – Huey likened it to regular airline jet maintenance. “The dairyman doesn’t touch the milker,” he said.

As a backup power source, DeLaval is recommending a specially designed generator that won’t knock out the computerized electronics.

The first robotic milker – not a DeLaval unit – installed in the United States went on Knigge Farms, Winnebago County, Wis. The Knigges received a $320,000 Technology Development Loan last June from the state’s department of commerce to purchase the milking equipment. The commerce department said the loan helped leverage $700,000 in private investment. The Knigges were expanding their herd to 150 cows.

Dutch farmers receive subsidies from their government to install various units, according to University of Wisconsin ag engineer Doug Reinemann.

Size neutral.

Huey, who prefers to call the robotic milkers “automatic” or “voluntary” milking systems, said dairy farms of all sizes could benefit from the unit.

“The No. 1 benefit is labor,” Huey said. “Labor is becoming very, very tough to get on some dairy farms.”

He’s talking with a Minnesota farmer who’s interested in installing two units for his 110-cow herd simply so he can remain a one-man operation.

The other big plus is greater freedom, Huey said. “The dairyman of the future doesn’t want to be tied down. Your cows could be milked right now while you’re sitting in this room.”

Set up.

The critical point for the automatic milker to work is traffic flow. Most units are set up so cows have to pass through the milking unit to get to the feed bunk. The unit reads a cow’s transponder to start the milker or to let the cow pass through to the feed bunk.

Wisconsin’s Reinemann said giving the cow greater control over his daily routine may improve cow comfort – no standing in a holding pen waiting to enter the parlor. And milking the cows more frequently – Huey said the average is 2.8 times per day, but a Holland study found 83 percent of the cows would milk an average of 3.9 times – increases milk yield per cow and ultimately the milk check.

But not every cow will go through the unit. “Some cows won’t use this system,” Huey admitted. “I call them ‘neighbor cows’ or ‘McDonald’s cows.’” And Huey recommends not running treated cows or just-fresh cows through the automatic milkers, which means farmers have to maintain another milking setup.

Food for thought.

Ohio farmers are not typically early adopters of technology and the milk producers at last week’s conference generally expressed interest, but said the price would have to come down before they’d take a serious look at it.

“It’s really kind of interesting,” said Deb Ayers of Ayers Farms in Perrysville, Ohio. “It looked like it would be something to think about.”

The issues with labor is something Ayers said will drive the technology. “The milking parlor isn’t a favorite place for a lot of people.”

* * *

How a robotic milker works

The unit is installed with controlled access to feed. The cow must go through an identification station to eat or be milked. The computer decides whether it’s time to milk the cow or just let her eat, and opens the corresponding gate to the milker or the feed bunk.

The milker automatically cleans and preps each teat individually, attaches, monitors milk flow by quarters, detaches individually based on each quarter’s milk flow, and disinfects the teats and releases the cow. The teat cups are backflushed and disinfected and an adjustable cycle cleans the unit floor.

On most models, the process takes about 10 minutes per cow from entry to exit, according to University of Wisconsin ag engineer Doug Reinemann. The DeLaval unit averages 7 to 8 minutes.

European farmers say cows quickly learn the robotic milker ropes, except old cows that have gotten set in their ways.

* * *

Frequently asked questions:

How much does it cost?

The DeLaval unit, for example, is $183,400, which includes a one-year service contract. Subsequent service contracts for one unit are $4,000 per year. A three-unit complete facility DeLaval is designing for one producer will cost around $970,000, which includes equipment that automatically pushes up feed.

How much water does a system use?

Less than a double-six parlor used twice a day.

What happens if a cow kicks off a unit?

Each system can be programmed differently, but DeLaval’s Joe Huey said his company’s unit will put the unit on again if that quarter has been milked less than 85 percent of that cow’s recent five-day average.

Can I put an automatic milker in my existing barn?

Doubtful. The idea is to create movement through the milking unit to the feed bunk. Huey estimates 80 percent of current facilities would need to be changed to accommodate an automatic milker.

How many cows can one unit milk?

Approximately 50-60 cows, but numbers vary depending on amount of dirt that must be cleaned from teats and other factors. Huey also does not recommend running cows with mastitis or just freshened cows through the unit.

What about three-quartered cows?

Several of the robotic milkers can be programmed to identify three-quartered cows and which quarter.

About the Author

Farm and Dairy Editor Susan Crowell has been with the paper since 1985, serving as its editor since 1989. Raised on a farm in Holmes County, she is a graduate of Kent State University.You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/scrowell and follow Farm and Dairy at http://twitter.com/farmanddairy. You can also find her on Google+ and Facebook. More Stories by Susan Crowell

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