Weighing the pros and cons
The scene inside the barn at Dream On Farm is peaceful. Cows lounge and wander freely, visiting the automatic backscratcher and stepping up to be milked at will. An automatic feed pusher ensures they have plenty to eat, and a robotic cleaner makes its way across the barn’s slotted floors, cleaning up without disturbing the cows.
“It’s very tranquil,” says Mary Warren, who operates the 115-cow dairy with her husband, Joe. “The nonhuman interference that you give them, you can just tell they love it. And people who come here, they notice it. You can feel it in the barn.”
Dream On Farm, located on 229 acres in Whiting, Vt., is home to two Automatic Milking Systems (AMS), commonly referred to as robotic milkers. These machines enable cows to set their own milking schedules, automatically performing all the tasks associated with milking. When each cow enters the robot, her electronic ID tag is read, and her experience is customized to fit her needs and level of production. She is given a feed reward, her udders are cleaned and milk cups are attached. After she is finished being milked, the cups automatically detach and she is able to exit the robot. The machines are capable of milking 24 hours a day, without human involvement.
The Warrens decided to make the switch to the robotic systems in February 2014, after nearly 20 years of milking. At the time, the couple was milking 90 cows in a tie-stall barn with the help of their niece. They worked long, backbreaking hours.
“It was getting old, but we didn’t like the idea of hired help,” Warren says.
The Warrens were used to doing things on their own. Joe had always worked on farms and loved the lifestyle, but the couple didn’t have a family farm to inherit. They saved some money and purchased six cows, starting their farm from scratch in 1991. At the time, they both also worked fulltime jobs off the farm.
“We did that on a little rented farm where you had to carry your milk to the bulk tank,” Warren says. “We did that for four years.”
They moved to another farm in 1995 — a slight improvement, with a pipeline to the bulk tank. But four years later, they lost their entire herd to a fire. They purchased their current farm in 2000, a tie-stall facility that was in need of remodeling. As their operation continued to grow, they realized that they needed additional help.
“We had always been interested in robotic milking,” Warren says. “So we just kept watching the technology. We got to the point where we needed to figure out what we could do to make things a little bit easier.”
Decreased labor and increased efficiency are some of the most obvious advantages of AMS, allowing dairy farmers like the Warrens to improve efficiency and milk cows with only family labor.
“With this technology, you take labor out of the equation, so the cows are milked very consistently,” says Larry Fox, professor at the College of Veterinary Medicine at Washington State University. “You don’t have to schedule or pay for that labor. If somebody doesn’t show up, it’s not your headache. The machine is there, and it will automatically milk the cows.”
For the Warrens, those labor savings have been considerable. The machines save each of them about five hours of physical labor a day, but Warren says dairying is still a fulltime job — the capacity has just changed.
“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.
“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.
But Warren says that number has been steadily dropping ever since. Prior to making the change to robotics, the farm’s somatic cell count ran between 100,000 to 120,000. Now, nearly a year after switching to the robotic milkers, the levels are close to evening out at 135,000.
Milk production has also increased, with each cow making about six or seven more pounds of milk than they did in the tie-stall barn. Warren says they now average about three milkings a day with the robots.
Because the success of the robots varies from operation to operation, with studies reporting mixed results of the fledgling technology, consumers might find it difficult to understand what robotic milking means for their food.
“I think the general public has a problem with the concept of a commercial facility or a factory farm,” Warren says. “We hear those terms a lot. I think the public wants to know that the animals that produce their food are well taken care of. And I think in a robotic facility, managed right, you’re not going to be able to give them any better environment to make the milk that they do.”
It’s up to each producer to weigh the benefits and disadvantages of robotic milking and choose the milking system that works best for them. For the Warrens, the positives have outweighed the negatives.
“I would never, ever go back,” Warren says.
GEA brings robotic milking to large-scale farms
Technology is changing the way many dairy farms operate across the country. Most notably, robotic milking has been embraced by more and more farmers, helping them better manage their small and mid-size herds.
Now, larger farms have access to similar systems that can help increase profitability and quality of animal care without the need to add employees.
In 2014, GEA Farm Technologies, Inc. introduced DairyProQ, which the company’s website claims is the “world’s first fully automated, per stall, robotic rotary milking parlor.” GEA is now offering the DairyProQ in the United States.
For larger farms, robotic milking wasn’t considered a viable option given if there was an equipment failure, herds would be too large to milk in a traditional fashion. However, GEA representatives say DairyProQ helps address those concerns by incorporating individual robotic modules on each individual stall. If one module goes down, it will not impact the operation of the whole system.
“(DairyProQ) is built with a smooth, cow-friendly design that makes it easy for cows to enter and exit stalls,” says Matt Daley, head of GEA’s milking and dairy farming sales in North America. “Additionally, the ‘plug and play’ robotic modules have been designed so one can be removed for service and replaced with no interruption to operation. Your cows and your milking schedule stay right on track.”
Each stall unit on the DairyProQ rotary has its own robotic module, and is designed to automate the entire milking process. Teat cup attachment, teat prep (including pre-dipping), fore-stripping, stimulation, milking and post-dipping are done within the liner, in one single attachment. The unit is automatically removed and backflushed between milkings to sanitize the cluster between cows.
Special needs cows or those needing individual attention, can be milked on a semi-automated (manual) basis as needed.
For more information on the DairyProQ, contact GEA at 1-877-973-2479.