Robotic Milking

Written by Emily Battmer

“You obviously don’t just put the robots in and walk away,” she says. “Because you’re not physically milking them twice a day, you have to stay on top of the information the computer gives you.”

Now, instead of the hands-on, physical job of milking, Warren says she and her husband spend their time “babysitting” the robots and monitoring the data that the machines provide, which allows them to pay close attention to cow health and cleanliness.

A 2012 study, published by the Michigan Dairy Review, determined that most producers report an improvement in cow health and a reduction in mastitis following the transition to robotic milking. The farmers attributed this to less stress on the cows and the access to improved, individualized information provided by the robots. Most robots provide information on milk quality and the cow’s body weight. Some also monitor the cow’s temperature and eating habits. This information allows producers to identify and treat illnesses quickly, improving herd health.

Animal wellness and comfort often go hand-in-hand. For the Warrens, the greatest benefit of the robotic milking system has been cow comfort. Warren says the cows are “spoiled” — in addition to the AMS, the couple also installed automatic back scratchers and a feed pusher, giving them even more freedom and independence. People no longer have to interfere to milk the cows, or move them out of the way to clean the barn.

“They can pretty much do what they want, when they want,” Warren says. “And there’s not really any barn that affords cows luxuries like that.”

While the technology offers advantages when it comes to cow health and comfort, as well as time and labor savings, it is not without its disadvantages. Even the Warrens faced challenges when implementing the new technology.

First, it’s expensive. One study, published by the Michigan Dairy Review in 2012, suggests that $200,000 per machine is a good estimate for producers who are thinking of switching to AMS.

When the Warrens priced out a new facility to install the robotic milkers, they ran into financing problems when their bank declined to offer them a loan to build the facility. Warren says they had to revisit their options, deciding to use their old tie-stall barn and make an addition to incorporate the machines. By using what they already had, Warren says they saved a lot of money, making the transition to robotic milking more affordable.

Money wasn’t the Warrens’ only challenge, however. Warren says the adjustment was not an easy one for the cows or the people involved. During the construction and installation phases of the project, they moved their entire herd to another farm about five miles away. During the cows’ stay there, they transitioned from the tie-stall barn to a freestall and milking parlor.

Then, six months later, the cows were brought back to Dream On Farm — where they had to learn another new barn and a new milking system all at once.

“It asked a lot of our cows, and it asked a lot of us,” Warren says. “But everybody managed to hang in there, and we’re really enjoying life now.”

Warren says the cows adapted pretty quickly to the technology, but not all cows are so lucky. Fox says some cows are reluctant to accept the change, and in many cases, those cows have to be culled.