Robots a Reality for Large Herds Part 2

By Nancy Charlton, Dairy Management Advisor, Automated Milking Solutions

In our last issue, we talked about the benefits robotic milking has for cows in large herds. In this issue we’ll explore additional benefits for the cow as well as for labor.



Benefits for the cow

Robotic milking drastically increases flexibility. Milkings may be tailored based on a cow’s individual needs regardless of herd size.

Automated data collected on robotic systems can be used to monitor health and reproduction and to follow traits for genetic selection. It can also identify inefficiently milked cows by monitoring milk flow, health indicators (lactate dehydrogenase, conductivity, blood, etc.), inflation attachment time and milking time. These can all can be incorporated into reports to filter animals that are outside of your specified limits.

For cows that are more than 200 days in milk, you can adjust permissions to reduce the number of milkings per day as three times may not be necessary based on the animal’s level of production. You can also lower the amount of feed available through the robot if she is decreasing in yield to cater to her nutrient needs. This also encourages the dry off period by reducing production depending on the amount of pellet being offered. Milking the right cows at the right time with the most appropriate milk frequency can improve the robot’s efficiency overall.

Last but not least, although more research is needed to validate the anecdotal findings, very often large robotic dairies report lower cull rates due to improved cow wellbeing. Cows have a shorter walking distance, spend less time standing and are away from the feedbunk for shorter periods of time.

Benefits for labor

Making the switch to robotic milking enables a producer to focus on quality time instead of the quantity of time. On conventional farms, the majority of time is devoted to bringing cows to the parlor and harvesting the milk. This is in stark contrast to a robotic farm where the cows arrive voluntarily and harvesting is automated. Though producers should expect to spend the same amount of time overall, it is focused on other tasks.

Certain tasks may still require the same amount of time, however more time within each area can be spent analyzing cow data. Based on the software’s feedback, it may be discovered that more time should be spent on reproduction or pushing up feed. Expect to spend time on special needs cows once the entire herd has been screened through the sensors and algorithms.

By gaining more efficient use of time, a producer will likely see increased flexibility in the daily routine. This allows time to focus on management areas in need of improvement. For example, if you have Herd Navigator and notice several anestrous cows, you should try to troubleshoot the reason with your advisory team if necessary. It may just be a seasonal occurrence or something that warrants further investigation.

You can also consider automatic add-ons such as feed pushing to encourage dry matter intake and cow turns while automated feed delivery can optimize feeding. Research demonstrates that feeding 3 or more fresh deliveries improves dry matter intake, rumen health and fermentation consistency which can improve milk yield and milk components (mainly fat) as a result.*

Refocusing time also reduces the need for entry-level labor and potentially the number of hours per task. Aside from crucial daily tasks, you should refocus on hiring individuals that are able to utilize the software in combination with cow-side knowledge to make decisions. These decisions could include analyzing a new incidence of high conductivity in one quarter and evaluating if it is clinical or something else. Employee training time depends on the number of animals, if you are a seasonal calving facility or if other specialization is needed.

Skilled labor with capable individuals are more efficient and enable more cows per person because the robots handle the actual milking. As herd sizes increase, labor economies of scale are realized (see Table 1).

Results will vary from dairy to dairy, and DeLaval does not claim the results depicted in the table are typical. Nothing herein shall constitute a warranty or guarantee of performance. Please use this information as only part of the product selection decisions. The calculations depicted above are based on average performance across areas of use under normal conditions, and may not predict future results. Successful use of any product depends on a variety of factors, including good farm and herd management practices.

-photo courtesy of DeLaval

Precision dairy technology also provides a modern, sustainable business model for herd advisors. The robots generate a higher level of processed data and reports are able to summarize, whether default or customized, information for the genetics/semen company, veterinarian and nutritionist so they can find opportunities in their herds. For example, a producer may need to consider another corn silage variety to improve consumption (i.e. brown mid-rib corn silage compared to conventional). You might also notice low conception rates from sires, or robotic efficiency from sires, which could influence future decisions. Programs have long been used to assist in evaluating herd management data, but it becomes readily available with robotic milking systems.

Most important, robotic milking helps create an attractive industry for the generations to come. This is because robotic milking is not as labor intensive as conventional and enables producers to specialize in areas he/she prefers. Robotic milking gives more focus to the cow and the information she provides.

*(Hart et al. 2014. J. Dairy Sci. 97:1713-1724; Sova et al. 2013. J. Dairy Sci. 96:4759-4770).

For more information go to