Virtual Cow College tackles economics of robotic milking

Dan Hansen
Many producers are considering a robotic system in order to reduce labor costs, but regional Extension educator Dr. James Salfer urges them to proceed cautiously.

For 58 years, dairy producers and other agriculture professionals from throughout northeastern Wisconsin gathered in person to learn the latest results from research on a variety of topics related to their industry.

In 2021, those participating in the sessions, sponsored by Shawano and Outagamie UW-Madison Extension offices and Fox Valley Technical College, gathered around their computers instead due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

During the first virtual session on Jan. 13, Dr. James Salfer of the University of Minnesota Extension reported on various studies related to economics of automated milking systems (AMS), commonly known as robotic milking.

Robots vs parlor

Salfer recognized that many producers are considering a robotic system in order to reduce labor costs, but added a note of caution. 

“If you’re using family labor for other productive purposes, or to improve your lifestyle, that’s great, but if you’re using 100 percent family labor, you can’t use that money savings to make a robot payment. Remember, about half of profit you’ll see with a robotic system is from labor savings.”

Dr. James Salfer

When it comes to milking efficiency, he stated that a lot more cows can be milked in a double-8 parlor. “I know people who milk 600 cows through a double-8 parlor. If you’re thinking about expanding from 4 robots or going from 240 to 400 cows, when you do that in a robot system, you obviously need to buy more robots. If you do that in this parlor system, you can just hire more labor,” he added.

“We also ran a scenario with 1,500 cows and a double-24 parlor and 25 robots. You can see the investment. In every single scenario the robot is not as profitable as the parlor.”

A spreadsheet can help calculate a break-even labor rate between robots and a parlor. “Right now you have to pay milkers in the mid-$20 per hour range in order for the profit to be the same with robots and parlors,” Salfer explained. 

“I don’t think there are too many milkers making wages in the $25 per hour range. But by the time you factor in vacation time, retirement and health benefits the total cost for employees is probably approaching $20 per hour right now,” he said.

There’s currently an advantage to a parlor system but but that’s likely to decrease as we continue to get pressure on wages, according to Salfer. “There are a lot of large farms putting in robots but they’re more concerned about being able to find labor in the future.”

Factors affecting profitability

The biggest thing affecting profitability is milk production change compared to the alternative systems. “The numbers are all over the place,” explained Salfer. “Some say 4-5 pounds, but it’s not uncommon for me to hear 10 pounds more milk. Producers often compare profitability to possibly alternatives, such as  building a new freestall barn and a parlor, or going to a pasture-based system.”

Salfer says he expects to see more hybrid milking systems. “That’s where producers build a new robot barn but continue to milk in their parlor. I think we’re going to see more of those, especially among the larger farms.

“The real advantage is being able choose which cows you want to put in your robot system. You can build really labor efficient operations with these hybrid systems,” he said.

Moving from an old tie-stall barn with thin rubber mats that’s poorly ventilated to a new sand-bedded freestall barn can see milk production increases up to 15 pounds per cow.  “But most of the credit goes to the barn, not the robots,” he said  Milking frequency is another important factor. “The more times the cow is milked each day, the better off we are.”

While robotic milking system can free up family members and employees to get other important work done, those using 100 percent family labor will not be able to use the money savings to make a payment on the robots, says a University of Minnesota official.

Robots also can enable family members and employees to get other important work done. “Many of our family farms just can’t get all the work done everyday. Maybe all they can do is get the cows fed and milked,” said Salfer. “By sparing some of that labor with robots, they’re much more able to get their hay put up on time, take care of their calves, get the manure hauled and keep the calves and cows clean.”

Repair costs

The longer you’re in a robot barn, the higher your repair costs are likely to be, according to Salfer. “When I run my models, I usually use about $10,000 per robot per year,” he said.

That sounds like a lot, and it is a big number, but it might not be a lot different than running a parlor 24 hours a day. 

“Many of our farms are going from milking 3-5 hours a day, to a robot that milks 24 hours a day. It’s a number that matters but in our models, it doesn’t matter nearly as much milk production or labor and what you do with that labor.”

Repair costs per robot are estimated at about $10,000 per year.

Pre-calving management

Really good pre-calving management produces healthy cows. “Healthy fresh cows are really active so they visit the robot often which promotes early milk production. We really need to get these cows off to a good start in robot herds. If they’re not feeling good, they can lay in that stall all day,” Salfer said.

Good pre-calving management includes not overstocking freestalls, maintaining 30 inches of bunk space, and offering really high quality forage in the PMR. “Moisture changes or other changes at the feed bunk can really get cows off their feed. Work with a nutritionist to make high quality forage consistent every single day,” Salfer advised.

It’s important for early lactation cows to visit the robots often. “There’s a strong correlation between milk per cow and milk per robot. As visits go from 1.9 to 3 or 4 times per day, milk production can go from 50 to 100 pounds per day for early lactation heifers,” explained Salfer.

Feeding two or more times a day allows nutritionists to do a better job of providing specialty feeds for fresh cows. Automatic feed pushup aids in getting substantially higher milk production. “It’s common to get 4-7 more pounds per day, and automatic manure removal also showed an increase in milk production,” said Salfer.

He noted that some first-lactation cows struggle, and some even after 4 weeks were still averaging twice-a-day milking. Pre-training heifers is a good way to help them get to the robot more often. “Walking them through the robot takes 15 to 20 minutes a couple of time per day. By doing this at three weeks in milk you expect almost one more per heifer visit per day,” he reported.

“Get fresh cows off to a good start by practicing the behavior you want early in the lactation,” Salfer advised. “Train them over and over again. Train heifers to get used to the whole pen, including water and feed. It’s important to guide, not chase them to the robot so they sort of find the way on their own.”

Boosting profits

Finding the optimum number of milkings per cow per day is the best path to profitability. Many producers believe that milking from 2.6 to 3.2 times per day is a good number.  “A lot might depend on your system,” said Safer. “In our surveys, grazing herds had fewer milkings per cow, per day, then those that were confined to a barn.” 

The optimum number of cows per robot also depends on several factors. It was thought that 60 cows per robot was the optimum number, but Salfer says newer units can often handle more cows efficiently.

In a study, Salfer had herds with 66-70 cows per robot that averaged 2.6 milkings per day, but still averaged 86 pounds of milk per day.

The optimum number of cows per robot also depends on several factors. It was thought that 60 cows per robot was the optimum number, but Salfer says newer units can often handle more cows efficiently.

“What really matters is making sure you get the right cows to the robot at the right time,” he stressed. “You don’t want to be milking a late lactation cow that’s only giving 55 pounds a day 4 times a day, you want to be milking those fresh heifers 4 times a day and late lactation cows twice a day.”

Producers ought to be focused on how much milk cows are giving when they come to the robot. “You don’t want a cow that has 3 pounds of milk in her udder to get milked at the robot,” Salfer cautioned.

Robot considerations

If you’re considering a robotic milking system, you’ll need to be aware of its  Imperfections. 

“Some things robots do better than human milkers and some things they don’t,” he warned. “Cow prep and dipping are OK but not great. Dealing with milk quality and mastitis can be an issue. Dealing with contagious organisms can be a challenge. Some high-producing cows just don’t want to visit the robot.”

Salfer stressed that maintaining robots is a little more expensive. “Keys to success are high visits for cows in early lactation, balanced diets, high reproduction, excellent cow comfort and low somatic cell count. Labor cost and availability are going to continue to be problems,” Salfer said.

“Do everything you can to help your robots succeed,” advised Salfer. “Hire the right employees, feed high quality forage, clip the udders and have a really good barn design.”