Dairy & Livestock

Dairy Health & Comfort

Precision Dairy

Using precision dairy on your dairy farm. Find out if milking robots will work for your farm and if they will be profitable in the long run. 

Robotic Milking Units

Do Milking Robots Pay?

Common reasons to install robots

Producers don’t install robots because it’s the lowest cost option for harvesting milk. Surveys show that they install robots for three reasons.

  • To improve lifestyle
    • Flexible daily schedule to attend kids’ activities or family events
  • To decrease labor
  • To milk more cows with family labor only

Robots allow producers to free up labor previously dedicated to milking chores. Thus, producers may need to hire less labor, which could go towards loan payments for robots.   

A producer may expect labor-saving within family labor. In this case, the producer must use it for something more productive than milking to improve total farm income. The most common option is to expand the herd size. Other options may include improving:

  • Reproduction
  • Crop management to increase yield and forage quality
  • Youngstock quality through better care

If producers don’t choose something more productive than milking, this money will come out of family living.

Key factors to robotic milking

“Management makes milk — robots only harvest it,” says Doug Kastenschmidt, a Wisconsin dairy farmer whose cows average over 100 pounds daily with robots.

The following are key to successfully managing robots.

  • Watch cow behavior and make changes to improve performance.
  • Have a skill and interest in the robot system.
    • Robots require more technical skill than other milking systems. Managers should enjoy using software for the greatest benefit.
    • Robots require a higher level of repair skill. Having someone on the farm develop the skill to do simple repairs can lower maintenance cost.
  • Manage feed for consistent cow flow to the robots and for good performance.
  • Plan for future growth.
    • Box-type robots on the market can milk about 50 to 70 cows per box. When expanding, you must do so in 60-cow increments and increase your investment in robots.
  • Have someone on the farm willing to take calls from the robot around the clock.
    • If you aren’t prepared for this, it can be frustrating.

Milking Dairy Cows with Robots

Robotic milking systems (RMS) are becoming more common in the USA, especially in the Upper Midwest and Northeast regions. Dairy producers choose to install RMS for a variety of reasons, but surveys have shown that one of most common reasons relates to labor (flexibility maybe more than labor cost) and lifestyle or quality of life for herd owners and their employees.

Feeding management is a key for success in RMS

Our surveys indicate that dairy producers rank feeding management as the number one factor leading to successful results with RMS.

When we feed cows in RMS, we need to consider not only the partial mixed ration (PMR) that is delivered in the feed bunk, but also balance that ration with the concentrate pellet fed in the robot box. This balance can be challenging! A palatable feed offered in the RMS milking station is the main motivating factor for cows to visit the RMS. More farms are now feeding more than one type of concentrate pellet in the robot box, maybe a high production pellet for their earlier lactation cows and a late lactation pellet that is less expensive.

We learned that in free cow traffic flow farms (where cows have continuous access to feed bunk, resting and RMS box), the PMR was balanced for 15 to 30 pounds less than the herd’s bulk tank average production, whereas in guided flow farms (where the cows are guided by pre-selection, one-way gates into the RMS box area), the PMR was balanced for 8 to 15 pounds less than the average.

Forage quality and consistent dry matter in the PMR are really important. Nutritionists in our survey indicated that palatability of the pellet and consistent PMR mixing were the two biggest feeding factors contributing to RMS success. Consistency is the key! Farms that achieve consistently high production have the following attributes:

  • Consistent PMR dry matter
  • Consistent mixing and delivery of the PMR
  • Consistent feed push ups
  • Consistent and frequent cow fetching
  • Consistently high visits by fresh cows
  • Highly palatable PMR
  • Highly palatable, consistent, high quality, milking station feed

Milk quality can be a challenge if RMS is not managed properly

There are some clear advantages when milking cows with robots but also some challenges for maintaining udder health.

One of the advantages in RMS is that quarters are individually milked and detached which reduces overmilking. This can help improve teat end health. There is also less risk for antibiotic 

contamination with a treated cow, as long as her ID is entered in the computer so the milk is discarded.

However, a current challenge with RMS (depending on the system) is teat prepping and post dipping. A study in Europe found that only 67% of the cleanings were technically successful, i.e., all 4 teats were brushed. However, in the best performing farm, over 95% of the teat cleanings were technically successful. Reasons for most of the failed teat cleanings were undetermined but of the known causes, a device failure in one herd and restless behavior of the cows in several herds were associated with most of the totally unsuccessful teat cleanings, whereas abnormal udder and teat structure were associated with most of the partly unsuccessful teat cleanings.

Another challenge relates to identification of clinical mastitis cases. Although additional metrics have improved detection in recent years, a few cows might still be missed. Contagious organisms can be a real challenge. Implementing regular bulk tank milk cultures will help reduce udder health problems. If contagious organisms are present in the herd there can be some special add-on equipment (e.g., steam cleaners) that may help.

What are some steps that can help reduce udder health problems?

  1. Getting cows to regularly visit the RMS milking station is important. If cows have a very long milking interval, leaking of milk greatly increases and these cows are at higher risk for mastitis.
  2. Keeping the barn and stalls clean is very critical. The RMS cannot distinguish between dirty and clean udders; therefore it is important that cows enter the RMS unit with a lower bacteria load.
  3. Cleanliness of milking units, robot and area around the robot is also critical.
  4. It is also important to fine tune RMS settings for optimum performance on a routine basis and optimize/adjust the machine for the barn and bedding type. Default values might not be adequate. Working with service providers helps in this process.

Other items to keep in mind are adjusting the pre-stimulation time (to result in rapid milk let down) and teat drying time, plus adjusting for breed, size of teat and shape of the udder. A system to find failed cows rapidly should be developed. There is research that shows cows/quarters with incomplete milking are more susceptible to infection.

The knowledge about RMS continues to grow in North America and producers’ satisfaction with the system has improved in recent years. It takes a team approach including producers, service providers, nutritionists, veterinarians and other advisors to best optimize RMS utilization.


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