May 11, 2017

Reaping the Benefits of Robots

 |  By: Mike Opperman

We talked to three producers who recently installed robots to get their viewpoint on the benefits and challenges of making the switch to robots.

  • Duane Meier, Meier Dairy, Palmer, Kansas. Milking 650 mostly Holsteins and some Jerseys, installed 12 Lely robots in September 2015
  • John Kampman, Gracemar Farms, Chilliwack, British Columbia. Milking 1,250 Holsteins, installed 60-stall GEA robotic rotary parlor in March 2016
  • Steve Sondericker, Friendly Acres Dairy Farm, Attica, New York. Milking 500 Holsteins, installed 8 DeLaval VMS units in January 2016

Q: What challenges did you have when you first got started with the robots?

Meier: Originally we thought we could fire up six robots, get those up and running and then install the other six, but that didn’t work. We needed to have all 12 installed at once so they could synchronize with each other. That was something we didn’t anticipate when we first got started.

We’re also on a learning curve from the feeding side also. We’ve found that getting forage moisture right is extremely important with robotic dairying. Plus, it’s a challenge balancing what we feed through the TMR in the bunk and the energy supplied through the pellets fed in the robots.

Kampman: Biggest issue was letting the robot do the work. I’m used to being more hands on. Since it was new technology from GEA, there was some software things to work out but we agreed to work on it together as we got started.

Some of the older cows didn’t adjust from the herringbone to the rotary, we probably lost 5 to 7% of the cows just based on their stance in the rotary, their udder confirmation, and so forth. We didn’t lose any two year olds.

Sondericker: It went a lot easier than I thought. We broke the adoption over two weeks, expecting it to take that long for the cows to adjust. It really only took them four or five days. The biggest challenge was learning a whole new approach to management, relying on computers and technology to manage cows, what reports to look at. There is so much information to look at you have to decide what is most important.

Q: What have been the biggest benefits?

Meier: To me labor savings have been the biggest benefits. There have been days when two or three of us can get all of the necessary things done, and that’s something I haven’t had in a long time. To me that’s huge.

Production has improved as well, and we are on the right track. In our parlor we never had cows milking 160 pounds per day, and I have that now with robotics.

Kampman: We were at 37 kgs (about 81 pounds) before we transitioned and we stayed at that. We did drop some in somatic cell count. In our old parlor we didn’t prep cows, so we had some oxytocin cows. Now the robot preps so we don’t have any of those cows anymore. Plus the quarter checking helps us catch mastitis a lot earlier so we can be on top of those things faster. And we’re way more efficient, I could have never milked this many cows in an hour with one person without the robot and the rotary.  

Sondericker: Benefits to the cows is really two fold. I’m not in the parlor anymore so I can spend more time with the cows. From a technology standpoint it pinpoints things so much faster so I can identify the cows need attention. They are getting things detected sooner and getting attention faster. Plus the barn is so quiet and so low-key. There are fewer cow injuries since I don’t have to move the cows to nearly as much. They just kind of do their thing.

We did pick up production. We were at 74 pounds on twice a day milking. Now were’re at about 85 pounds on 2.6 to 2.7 turns per day.

Read more comments from these producers in the May/June issue of MILK magazine. You can see it online here