One of the first things dairy producers interested in VMS (voluntary milking system) robots must decide is whether to retrofit the existing barn or to build new. The investigation begins with honest answers to these five important questions.
- What are your milk production goals?
Not all dairies aim to average over 100 lbs/cow/day, but those that are looking for large percentage gains must heavily scrutinize existing conditions. For example, it will be extremely challenging to consistently attain necessary dry matter intake to support high performance if there is less than 12”/cow at the feed bunk.
- What are your labor efficiency goals?
Robots can be a major factor leading to improved labor productivity, but only if the facility supports it. If free cow traffic is your flow of choice, then labor input for fetching cows that are overdue to be milked can vary widely. Notably, when there is no room for a fetch pen, cow groups are large, or alleys and crossovers are narrow.
- What is your preferred cow flow?
Guided flow can be an attractive option as little to no fetching is needed and less grain is delivered in the VMS for motivation. However, required pre- and post-milk sorting gates at the robot while still allowing for recommended clearances to reduce or eliminate negative effects of congestion is only possible when deleting cow beds.
- Do you have future growth plans?
If your dairy intends to add more cows in the future, then expansion becomes necessary and must be planned. We must consider:
a. Can more robots be reasonably added and in a modular fashion?
b. Will there be a need for a second milk collection point?
c. What, if any, setbacks, easements, regulations, laws, geographic features, or other limiting factors come into play?
d. How will we dairy in the future, both from a general industry and specific operation standpoint?
- What are the existing conditions of your dairy?
Assuming the building is not dilapidated and thereby a health, safety, or welfare hazard for man or animal, in which case rebuilding is a must, we are obligated to ponder its general functionality as cow housing and as a robot facility. For cow housing we are focused on cow comfort and the fact that in a robot barn cows are now always in their pens, evaluating ventilation, feed bunk, bed count/size, alley widths, and manure handling. Turning to robot facility criteria, it is important to consider proximity of robots to cow beds, feed bunk, and milk collection point. In most cases clean and easy access to robots ranks high on the must have list.
The author is a licensed architect who heads up the growing DeLaval Facility Planning & Design Group for Market Area North America. He has been with DeLaval for nearly seven years, designing thousands of robotic milking facilities, conventional parlors, all types of housing for all cow ages, individual and group calf facilities, and overall farm master plans.
From Northern New York, as a young man Jeff worked on his father's construction company building freestall and calf facilities in addition to conventional parlors. He also worked on several dairies.
Next Jeff earned a BS degree in architecture from Florida A & M and an MBA from Florida State. Currently Jeff resides in Arvada, Colo., spending his free time backcountry snowmobiling and skiing in the winter and boating in the summer with his wife Jamie and Boxer dog Anna.