During the American Dairy Science Assn. Production Division Symposium "Robotic Dairying: Adapting Farm & Business Management," four presenters discussed the management changes and economics of investing in an automatic milking system (AMS).
Robotic dairying is becoming more popular all around the world. Approximately 15,000 dairies have invested in an AMS worldwide. The majority of these producers are smaller farmers, milking between 50 and 300 cows.
Adoption by these producers has been popular for two main reasons — the first being that the system allows a more flexible lifestyle by not devoting as much time to milking, and the second being the replacement of manual labor. Investing in an AMS can reduce labor needed by 29%.
However, before a producer invests in a robotic milker, some considerations need to be examined.
The first consideration needs to be looked at before the building of a facility even begins. Housing systems for an AMS can be divided into two types: guided flow or free flow. A guided system is set up with a sort gate. If the cow has not been milked for a determined period of time, she must first visit the AMS before going to the feed bunk. A free system simply lets cow enter the AMS as she pleases. The only enticement cows receive is concentrate provided by the AMS. Research has shown that cows in the guided system visit the AMS more frequently but visit the feed bunk less. Cows in a free system tend to have a higher dry matter intake and produce more milk.
Space and robot orientation also need to be considered before the system is built. Robots should have a large, open area in front of them that is free of objects that may entice cows to the area, such as cow brushes. A group of cows standing in front of the robots can slow down the throughput. Because cows have a social hierarchy, timid cows may not come to the front and, therefore, will be milked less often. If the producer is investing in more than one robot, robots should face the same direction. Cows are creatures of habit, and a bottleneck can be created when a group of cows decides they like the orientation of one robot over the other.
Besides management of the facility, producers also need to consider the change in management of the cows. An AMS provides an abundance of data for the farmer to use. Development of algorithms continues to help producers better manage their cows, providing 120 different measureable observations. This information can help producers detect diseases more quickly, assess milk quality at the cow level and provide specific nutritional needs to individual cows.
The feed concentrate the cow receives while visiting the AMS factors into her specific dietary needs. Providing the right amount of concentrate is very important. Feeding too much of the concentrate leads to wasting, because the cow is not done eating by the time she is done milking, but her energy demands can be cut short by not feeding enough.
Meeting the energy needs of individual cows can be done by having multiple concentrate bins attached to the AMS. Multiple bins allow for the mixing of concentrates to provide adequate energy for cows with different energy needs, thus increasing profitability by increasing income over feed costs.
AMS can be a profitable investment if managed correctly and fully utilized. In order to maximize the potential of an AMS, cow throughput needs to be maximized. Cows with high milk production and high flow rates are the best fit for a robotic milking system. Those that milk out slowly or have poor udder composition that complicates unit attachment will slow down the milking time of the AMS. Studies by breeding companies are ongoing to determine breeding standards that highlight traits that optimize cows for an AMS.
Robotic milking systems are becoming more and more popular and are here to stay in the dairy industry. As producers switch from a conventional milking system to an AMS, they need to consider how their management styles are going to change. Instead of visually observing cows while milking, producers can visualize data to better manage their herds. Even though they may be managing their herds differently, dairy producers enjoy the flexibility of the extra time they gain by using robotic milking systems.
*Derek Nolan is a graduate student at the University of Kentucky. He is researching milk quality economics.