“It could be that she just doesn’t choose voluntarily to be milked, or the milking system can’t apply the milking unit because of the conformation of the udder,” he says. “A certain percentage of cows have to be culled because the cow and the system don’t interact well.”
Another disadvantage of AMS is the potential for a breakdown of the technology. If there is an issue with the computerized system, Fox says it might be difficult to get the necessary technical support.
“If you have 6,000 cows and a few rotary parlors to support that with robotics installed and the system goes down, that could be a tremendous headache,” he says. “Obviously the larger the dairy, the more that problem gets magnified if things aren’t working properly.”
Because these disadvantages are amplified on a larger scale, Fox says this type of technology is better suited to smaller dairies, like Dream On Farm. That way, should the technology falter, there are few enough cows and enough labor to step in and milk the cows the old-fashioned way.
Historically, robotic milking units have been used on small family dairies in Europe, where they first became available in the early 1990s. Each machine is designed to handle approximately 60 to 100 cows, making them more cost-effective for use on a small farm, where producers don’t have to buy as many machines to support their herd.
And because U.S. dairies tend to be larger than those in Europe, Fox says the machines haven’t become as popular here. They weren’t introduced in the United States until 2000, and it’s estimated only 600 farms currently use the technology. However, some new technologies could potentially extend the use of robotic milkers to larger dairies. GEA’s DairyProQ, for example, is a fully automated robotic rotary milking parlor that was designed specifically for dairies ranging in size from 600 to 3,200 cows milking three times a day, or 4,500 cows milking twice a day. The new technology was recently made available to U.S. and Canadian farmers and was named a top 10 new product at the 2015 World Ag Expo.
The DairyProQ, which is already up and running on a handful of large-scale dairies in Europe, offers the same advantages as other AMS technologies on smaller dairies, allowing large farms to improve efficiency and increase their herd size without relying heavily on outside labor.
Another reason for the slow growth of the technology in the United States is differences in labor trends. The U.S. tends to have a more readily available supply of inexpensive labor, making robots financially disadvantageous in many cases.
Aside from price and limitations for use on larger dairies, Fox says there are often concerns about AMS’ impact on milk quality. Studies have reported mixed findings, but overall, Fox says the quality is likely equivalent.
“It’s certainly not better than manual cow cleaning before milking, but probably under the best of conditions, it’s no worse,” he says.
The Warrens have built a reputation for high-quality milk, with more than 20 years of gold certificates from their DFA district meetings. Warren says the milk quality took a slight hit at first as the cows transitioned to the AMS.
“When you first switch to your robotic system, you do see a spike in your somatic cell count,” she says.