Rodenburg predicts continued increases in robotic milking

Dan Hansen
A robot milks a cow at the Feltz farm. The cows produce 3-4 pounds more milk on average with the robotic milker.

GREEN BAY – “Robotic milking isn’t just about attaching milking machines to cows. These systems generate a lot of data that can help change the way you manage cows,” said Jack Rodenburg, as he began his presentation to a group of more than 100 dairy producers and other industry professionals.

After retiring from the Ontario, Canada, Ministry of Agriculture, Extension Service, Rodenburg started DairyLogix, as a way to stay involved with new developments in dairy technology and management. He has consulted on barn design projects for dairy farmers throughout Canada and other countries.

Rodenburg's resume is comprehensive as he specializes in designing robotic milking barns that maximize cow comfort and labor efficiency, and is also a certified CowSignals trainer. He regularly conducts workshops on observing and analyzing cow behavior to assess herd management and housing.

Rodenburg encouraged producers to remain relevant in today’s dairy industry by embracing new technology. “It helps keep you young, and will also help teach your children the right things. Because if you stop investing in change you’re likely sending the wrong message to the next generation and maybe sending them into another vocation,” he cautioned.

Jack Rodenburg has consulted on barn design projects for dairy farmers throughout Canada and other countries.

He cited a client of his in Ontario as a prime example of a dairy farmer who’s embracing technology and remaining relevant. “He milks 220 cows with four robot milkers, has a robotic feeding system and a slat scraper that helps keep the barn clean,” Rodenburg related.

Different systems

Rodenburg has been working with robotic milking systems since 1999. “We’ve learned a lot in those years,” he said.

“There’s a lot of technology out there and those considering installing robots should be aware of how different brands treat cows differently during milking with respect to cleaning udders, attaching teats, cow movement and other factors,” he advised.

Before installing a robotic system, Rodenburg says it’s necessary for producers to determine their cost to milk a cow in order to determine if the investment in robots will be profitable. “You also need to know if the cost of the system includes depreciation. The time to buy a robot is when your old parlor technology is worn out and paid for,” he stressed.

Although most of the robotic milking systems are in smaller herds, Rodenburg says, “Robotic milking is working well at satellite dairies, where a producer is milking 3,000 cows in a 70-stall rotary parlor and wants to add more cows, so he builds a cross ventilated barn for 12 robots because there’s very little labor in a barn like that, and it’s a great way for producers with large herds to gain some robot experience.”

Robotic advantages

Rodenburg emphasized that it’s a lot easier to build a barn for a robotic system than to duplicate that with another rotary parlor. “The cows milked with the robots are making more milk, their pregnancy rate is higher, the cull rate tends to be lower and the cows are just more comfortable,” he said.

Cows can be milked closer to where they bed, and don’t need to do a lot of walking. “There’s less stress on the cows and they have more time to eat and rest; they choose when to be milked, and the individual cow management can improve cow health, welfare and milk production.

Feed pushers are another important part of today’s robotic milking technology.

Feed pushers are another important part of today’s robotic milking technology. “While people might be pushing up feed three times a day, this machine will do it 10 times a day; it will do it at midnight when nobody’s around and on Sunday afternoon when nobody wants to be around, and it will do it on a day when you’re busy harvesting,” he said.

“Robotic milking gives you more opportunity to deal with individual cows by monitoring cell counts, connectivity and protein ratio. I.D tags flag levels of activity, microphones record cows' rumination and monitor the cows' chewing activity,” Rodenburg explained. “The systems also provide automatic sorting and handling from the robot area. About 15% of the labor savings in robotic milking comes from designing a proper animal handling and sorting system.”

Looking to the future

Automatic bedding production and delivery systems are going to be important to robotic milking systems in the future, according to Rodenburg. “Technology that only beds empty stalls should help decrease cow disturbance and Improve milk production,” he predicted. “Straight neck rails encourage cows to stand straight and tall, and they will lay down straight and keep the stall cleaner.”

Rodenburg says automatic calf feeders will also aid robotic milking. “I think this is probably one of the best payback technologies because computerized calf feeding can cut calf feeding time in half, and provide a 25% return on investment.”

Challenges include improving facility design and keeping calves healthy by providing sufficient dry bedding and good ventilation.

Rodenburg sees great potential with dynamic milking as a way to optimize robot efficiency. “Every cow is different. If we have a cow that’s currently milking three time a day and we let her come four times a day we can learn if she will give enough more milk to justify that?”

He said some cows might do better coming to the robot 2.5 times a day. “If they don’t respond negatively to that, we optimize our robots by catering to the individual nature of each animal.”

Rodenburg says it’s important to know how much time a cow actually spends in the box with the robot. “What we need to measure is the time when the cow becomes eligible for milking and when she actually shows up. The shorter that interval the more efficient the robot system becomes, and the industry has to start collecting that information.”

Proper feeding is another success factor in robotic milking. “Hard pellets fed in that robot attract the cows like candy,” he said. “High fiber pellets from barley, oats and cereal grains tend to produce more cow visits. Pellets with more fat aren’t very palatable and tend to decrease cow visits to the robot. There may be things we can do in the future with automatic feeding but the equipment isn’t well developed yet.”

Rodenburg suggested that a different type of cow also could improve robot efficiency. “Select cows for better udder conformation and wider teat placement,” he advised. 

“I think there’s a robot in everyone’s future; it might be 20 years from now when your current parlor is at the point where it’s declining, but don’t use the possibility that there might be something better in the future as an excuse for not investing in current technology,” Rosenburg stressed.