The term “retrofit” has been an official part of the English language since the 1950’s, but buildings, equipment, planes, cars and dairy barns have been taken and repurposed in many ways for many, many years prior. The goal of a retrofit, no matter the industry, is to make upgrades more affordable than they would be when building new. The other commonalities across industries when converting something to serve a new purpose, are the physical and operational changes essential to supporting the new function of the building or piece of equipment.
Just like any other repurposing project, adding robotics to your daily operations will require both physical and operational changes to your dairy farm, and the resulting new routines and management strategies will require a whole new mindset as well.
Many functions of milk harvesting for a robotic setup are already there in a conventional build, but there are certain pieces of equipment for robotic milking that will require significant changes to an existing operation. In the U.S. it is typical to place your new robot in a wall or opening of a room. This room should be adequately sized per the manufacturer’s minimum clearances and design parameters for proper installation, operation and maintenance. All of the pneumatic, plumbing, drainage and electrical supply lines should be provided within the room per the manufacturer’s specifications.
Your new or repurposed robot room(s) should have clean access or a boot wash outside of the room, to help keep the room clean of fecal matter. Within the room, the floors should be sloped with adequate floor drains or trench drains along with a hose bib and a hand sink. The finishes inside the room should be easily washable and durable. A positive air supply which is delivered from within the room will push air out to the barn while keeping surfaces dry. All of these hygiene variables are regulated at some level, and requirements will depend on your local inspector and local codes. Keeping your robot(s) and room clean will help with smooth operations and less maintenance on your robot(s).
Directly outside of the robot room should be a commitment or fetch pen area, depending on the cow flow of the barn. An existing, conventional barn will likely need something completely new to meet all these needs.
On most retrofit dairy barns there will be an existing milk house for your milk collection. This space can be reused or modified to support robotic milking, but in some cases, this milk collection point is too far from the renovated dairy barn and a new milk house and equipment room will need to be built. Keeping the milk transport lines a short distance from robots to milk house will keep initial cost down due to less material needed and will make cleaning easier. The number of robotic milking units also impact the required capacity of the milk tank and may require an upgrade for added capacity.
The extra equipment needed for robotic milking can also be housed in a room adjacent or near the robot room, which can be small-to-medium sized depending on the number of robots in the plan. This room will contain support equipment such as vacuum pump(s) and water heater(s). It should be located as close to as close to the robot(s) as possible. Other items such as divert milk racks, detergents and cleaners can also reside here.
A major change to any building will require a major change in operational functions. These changes will affect the whole barn. Depending on the goals of the dairy, many operational items must be established during planning of the retrofit design. One major consideration will be the gating and flow within the barn to and from the robot(s). Free flow and guided flow are two of the options. Free flow is exactly what the name entails: the cows are allowed to walk around freely wherever and whenever they choose within the barn, without any gates. Because no gates are involved, free flow provides a lower initial cost and a system that helps cows adapt more easily. Guided flow allows the cows to go from one area of the barn to another in an organized procession with a series of gates. For the increased initial cost of gates, you’re saving on labor, pellets in the robot, and creating an easier management system for treatments, footbaths, bedding and hoof trimming. Both systems have their advantages and disadvantages, and this decision plays a major role in the retrofit planning.
Additional operations that will change in the course of a retrofit, both in nature and location, include waterers, footbaths, hoof trimming, rations and bedding type. These factors are influenced by your goals, which will affect your management strategies, ultimately impacting the design of the retrofit.
Work outside of the dairy industry, from power plants to commercial restaurants, has taught me that modifying and repurposing a building requires physical preparation for the new equipment and functions, while understanding the needs or goals of the occupants, owner, and operators for these future changes. These principles apply when adding robotics to your existing dairy barn, regardless of the number of robots being installed. When we can start to look at a retrofit as a whole new purpose for the building, with new goals and new management strategies, it’s easier to see exactly how we need to reconstruct your barn to meet your new needs.
Editor’s note: Keith Ortiz, AIA, is an Architect and Project Design Specialist for DeLaval North America. With 20+ years of experience in commercial, residential, utilitarian and most recently, dairy project design, Keith has worked on large and small herd new builds and retrofit designs all around the US and Canada. He holds Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees in architecture from the University of Illinois at Chicago.