Barn design for robotic milking

Carole Curtis
Now Media Group


Jack Rodenburg is very passionate about robotic milking.

'I think it can do a tremendous amount to reduce dairy farm labor and, on the smaller farms, improve the life style of the operators,' Rodenburg said during the Hoard's Dairymanwebinar co-hosted by Steve Larson, Hoard's Dairyman, and Dr. Mike Hutjens, University of Illinois. It was sponsored by Lely (

Rodenburg worked for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Extension Service for 34 years and now owns and operates DairyLogix, which offers consulting on robotic issues in Canada, Europe and the U.S.

Properly implemented, Rodenburg said robotic milking can reduce dairy farm labor by 30 — 40%.

In practice, robotic milking systems often fall short for three reasons.

One is a failure to provide facilities for efficient separation and handling. 'Now we no longer milk, but we spend half the day chasing cows around because we have not thought about finding a good way to deal with individual cow handling,' Rodenburg said.

The second is a failure to provide for special needs animals, mainly fresh cows and lame cows. 'You'd like to have them close to the robots and in an environment where they're going to thrive,' he noted.

The third, less common, reason is failure to recognize the impact of behavior and social rank of the cow on voluntary attendance, especially in free traffic barns.

Design for success

The ideal robotic milking barn optimizes cow comfort by providing low -stress robot access. It also offers practical space for special needs cows and convenient animal handling.

Rodenburg presented a base barn design that featured a dozen items representing a right way to do it.

For starters, the barn has perimeter feeding with two drive-through feed alleys, one on each side on the outside of the barn.

There are 120 comfortable free stalls for milking cows in six rows, meaning three head-to-head platforms.

The robots are in the middle of the barn. Both face in the same direction, so cows flow in the same direction without confusion, and each robot has a fetch pen beside it.

There is a central handling area, usually with one chute, and a place with water, equipment storage and electricity to conveniently park records and, perhaps, a computer. 'That way, you can program the cow right there after you treat her with antibiotics, to make sure the milk is discarded,' Rodenburg noted.

Lined up behind one robot is a bedding pack for fresh and lame cows, then maternity pens and then a close up pen. 'In our 'Cow Signals' courses, we call this a stress-free calving line, because the cow's environment does not change very much through that period,' Rodenburg said.

The line of pens is comfortably bedded. 'Now you have just one area the barn that has straw bedding in it that can be cleaned out the same time and bedded at the same time,' he said. 'That works out to be a fairly practical approach.'

Behind the other robot are several separation pens, followed by free stalls with flexible gating for far-off dry cows or separation cows. 'You might put your oldest heifers back there, too, so you can train them when you're not doing anything else,' he said.

The office, with milk tank and utility area, is off to the side, putting it nicely in line with the robots and a short travel distance for the milk.

It's important to recognize that cows have to go to the robot on their own, Rodenburg said, so make the environment as comfortable for that as possible.

Cows also need to have healthy feet, because lameness decreases robot visits, increases the number of cows that must be fetched and decreases milk production. 'This is more so than in a parlor barn because the cow has to go on her own and she is less likely to do that if she has sore feet,' he said.

Healthy feet are critical

For healthy claws, Rodenburg cited four factors for success: good claw quality, low infection rates, low pressure on the claws and early, effective treatment.

Barn-wise, that means provide a place to do routing trimming, as well as clean and dry, comfortable stalls and clean alleys. That's why Rodenburg loves to design robot barns with a straw bedding pack for lame and problem cows, located close to the robot, that gives them a place to rest and recover.

In addition, foot baths and a quick access handling chute are necessary. 'I really recommend that, on a robot milking dairy, the owner or herdsman in charge have some hoof trimming/maintenance skills so you can respond very quickly to a problem,' he advised.

Foot baths have been a real challenge in robot barns. A footpath at the robot exit is not desirable because the location discourages cow visits and the number of passes, depending on how frequently a particular cow visits the robot, is highly variable.

One approach is to put a footbath in a remote crossover and walk all the cows through it once or twice a week. This approach is less disruptive to robot visits. All cows get the same number of passes, the fresh chemical works better, and it keeps the chemical away from milk and delicate metal parts.

The down side is gathering up all the cows for their foot bath does not suit their behavior patterns. 'I don't think this works as well as people would like it to work,' Rodenburg observed

His current approach is to put the foot bath in a separation lane next to a robot so a cow that doesn't need a foot bath goes straight out the exit lane. On foot bathing day, the computer can be programmed to send every cow once or twice through the separation lane and the footbath.

Another challenging area is handling individual cows in a robot barn.

'We need to be able to sort the cows at the robot exit and be able to do that over a 12 hour period prior to the time you need to work with the cows, such as prior to the vet coming for herd check,' Rodenburg said.

The cows should be sorted into a space with feed, water, stalls to rest in and milking access.

In Rodenburg's barn design, there is direct and convenient access by all the groups of cows to a central handling chute. In addition, the gating is designed so one person working alone can move any cow from any part of the barn to the chute.

Free traffic barns

Although barns may be designed with guided traffic, Rodenburg much prefers free traffic barns where the cows go about their business on their own. Such barns optimize cow comfort.

The key to making free traffic work is lots of space and escape routes in front of the robots. He likes to see 20 feet from the milking box to the first free stall, with cow brushes, pasture selection gates and computer feeders located far away from this area to spread out barn activity.

While robotics eliminates lots of milking chores, there are new labor demands.

Cows that don't attend the robot voluntarily will need to be fetched. On well run dairies, the number is usually between 2-5 percent. Manage the herd and design housing systems to minimize the number of cows that require fetching, Rodenburg advised, and provide simple cow routing and low stress fetch pens to get those cows milked.

The layout underlines the benefits of perimeter feeding, which most dairymen are not used to. 'It really helps to keep all of the cows central in the barn and it lets you be flexible about group sizes,' he explained, noting the barn will be 6 to 8 feet wider than a central drive-through and need a 14-ft high sidewall for trailer mixers.

Because cows don't leave the barn and big equipment is disruptive, he designs with straight, wide drive through alleys and big crossovers. Since tractor scraping disturbs the cows, manure is handled with slats, scrapers or flush systems and, when possible, automated bedding delivery is used.

To sum it up, the dozen things Rodenburg likes to build into a robotic barn are free traffic, open space in front of the robot, a footbath lane, all robots facing the same way, simple routes for fetching and moving cows from group to group, a central handling chute, gating for one person handling, a flexible separation area , fresh and lame packs, a stress-free calving line and perimeter feeding.

'You need to really focus on cow comfort and convenient handling,' Rodenburg underlined.