Surge in automatic milking on horizon

Ray Mueller
A cow is being milked by robots at Majestic Crossing Dairy. The robotic arm scans the cow’s teats and attaches cups below each. The Strauss family milks about 900 cows continuously  using 13 robotic milking machines.

KIMBERLY – By the time he retires, University of Wisconsin Extension Service milking system specialist Doug Reinemann expects that up to one-half of dairy cows will be milked in robotic or automatic units.

Reinemann didn't state a retirement date (he's 60) during a presentation at the Extension Service's semi-annual farm management update but he suggested that the move toward automatic milking is well under way. He noted that the first installation of robots in Wisconsin was at Knigge Farms near Omro in 2000.

The latest statistics indicate that more that a total of more than 200 dairy farms in Wisconsin and Minnesota, more than 300 in the United States, and upwards of 500 in Canada are equipped with robot milking units, Reinemann reported. There's a choice of single box and multiple box units, he observed.

Doug Reinemann

Around the world, more than 30 percent of the dairy cows in Denmark are milked by robots and 64 robots have been installed at one operation in Chile, Reinemann noted. In the United States, the largest installation is 20 robot boxes for a 1,200-cow dairy at Mason-Dixon, Pennsylvania, he added.

Reasons for change

According to surveys on the topic, the reduction of labor (either because of cost or lack of availability) ranks as the top reason for switching to automatic milking, Reinemann pointed out. Other reasons include the value of time flexibility, an increase of milking frequency, the opportunity for new investment in milking equipment, and an improvement in udder health.

“Robots are data collection machines” and they allow for individual cow management, Reinemann stated. “But we're not getting full use of that data yet.”

But there are also a number of other cautions, Reinemann emphasized. Although they save physical labor and time, “milking facilities never pay for themselves” nor do robot units provide an economy of scale, he commented. He said the cost of the entire facility to accommodate robot milkers is about double that of the robots themselves.

Survey responses

Users responding to surveys generally agree that, with a unit's capacity to milk about 10 cows per hour, the ideal number of cows per robot unit is close to 60 in order to provide an average of 2.4 to 2.8 milkings per day, Reinemann observed. It's feed served in the unit rather than udder pressure that motivates entry to the unit while lameness deters such movement, he added.

At the introduction of robots to a herd, survey respondents found that about four percent of the cows had to be culled because of incompatibility with the new system – a number that has dropped to between two and three percent today, Reinemann said.

In Wisconsin, the highest known average daily milk per cow in a robotic system is about 100 pounds, Reinemann reported. Regarding udder health or somatic cell count (SCC), he remarked that robots “not a cure for a high SCC because people get the SCC they want.”

Taking a wider view, Reinemann considers Wisconsin to be “a museum of milking methods.” As an example, he cited milking frequencies of 1.5 times per day in some of the state's herds to up to six times per day for a few high-producing cows in some herds.