A successful robotic start-up for a dairy converting from a parlor or stall barn to an automatic milking system requires careful planning and preparation that begins long before the robot arrives on the farm.
Robot manufacturers provide farm management support from the design phase right through the transition process. Others who will be important in the planning will be the nutritionist, veterinarian and often the hoof care specialist.
With this start-up team in on the decisions, farmers can address every aspect of their operation and plan for it as they design the facility and system.
Before even considering a move to this new technology, it is important for dairy farmers to see what is out there and learn as much as they can. Talking with farmers who have the systems is helpful. Ask about what works, but just as importantly, ask about what doesn't work.
What would you do differently?
Most farmers are willing to share the answer to that important question: "If you had it to do over, what would you change?"
Companies that manufacture and market robotic systems generally offer tours. This provides an opportunity for farmers who think they might be interested in the new systems to learn more. It also provides information to take to their lenders.
Central AgSupply at Juneau held its annual open house and along with it offered a tour of a successful robotic milking farm in the area.
As of the end of 2015, Central Ag had installed 22 robots, and the company is already working on the installation of 14 more this year.
They visited the Bacon farm in Columbus, which is unique because the 2012 marriage of Ed Bacon and Julie Orchard brought together two herds of cows: Bacon's Rolling Acres Holsteins and Gurn-Z Meadow Guernseys.
To accommodate the 120 head, the couple built a new 130-cow freestall facility and installed two Lely Astronaut A4 robotic milkers that have been operating for three years now.
In this barn, each herd has access to one robot. In many other barns that have two robots, all cows have access to either robot.
The design on the Bacon farm is head-to-head robot boxes located in the center of the barn with half of the six-row freestall barn on one side and half on the other.
The Bacons like their system because it allows them to have time for other jobs while still carefully managing their cows.
The Lely system allows the cows to make the decision when they want to come into the robot for milking. When they do, they walk straight in and straight out.
When Lely started in the business, they had a forced flow system, but experience taught the company it was better for the cows with a free-flow system.
Bacon described how the system works.
"The cups attach one at a time, guided by the laser," he said. "If an udder has a very strong reverse tilt, it can be a problem. Cows with teats crossed are hard to attach, too, but those are also difficult in a parlor, too. That problem could be solved by setting the system so she gets milked every 12 hours so they are fuller."
Bacon suggested that producers just starting to use a robotic system consider selling cows that do not adjust well. He said they can still be sold as milking cows to another dairy. It's not culling.
Maintenance on the systems is important. Some robotic system owners arrange to have the dealer perform routine maintenance on a four-month schedule. Many producers learn how to do some of the basic things themselves. Performing routine maintenance is important in order to honor the requirements of the warranty.
Bacon estimated the maintenance cost on his two-robot system is between $7,000 and $10,000 a year. That includes chemicals, maintenance, cleaning, inflation replacement and brushes.
Robots are engineered to last 20 years, but those who have replaced their original robots did so because they wanted to update to more efficient models.
Until now, there really has not been a used robot market, but it could begin to happen as robots become more common place on U.S. farms.
Now that Bacon has been using the system for a few years, he sees some real advantages. "There is no yelling, and cows are calm. Early lactation cows can be milked more times a day," he said.
Bacon's system, like most robot farms, has a buffer tank where milk is diverted while the bulk tank is being emptied and the tank and system are cleaned. That process can take up to an hour, and it is important to keep the robots working all day.
A commitment pen is helpful to prevent boss cows from blocking access to the robots. If heifers are timid, they can come into a pen with a split gate. The boss cow can't get in. When the boss cow gets into the fetch pen, as soon as she leaves the robot, the heifer can walk right in. The heifer knows to go into the fetch pen to get away from the boss cow.
"We want the robot to be a happy place for them, and they learn that soon," Bacon said.
Singeing udders and docking (or cutting hair) on tails helps the laser light do a better job lining up the cups. Bacon saidthat's a quality thing, anyway, so it didn't change anything when he went to the robotic system.
Separating treated milk works well as long as the management remembers to program it into the computer.
During the tour of the Bacon farm, dairy producers shared their concerns and fears. A common concern among those who had been milking in a stanchion barn was that they were accustomed to relying on their good cow instinct and were afraid to turn management over to a computer system. They trust their equipment and technology but doubt their ability to manage it.
Like any technology, there is a learning curve, but a willingness to get educated on using the system and to change will help.