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Robotics signal next generation of dairy farming

By Darrin Cline

As many aspects of industry and society continue to move toward highly advanced and technical approaches; animal agriculture is not being left in the dust. Dairy farming has seen extreme advancements over the last decade, and the advent of robotic milking systems has vaulted milking into a new level of efficiency.

The upper Midwest has proved to be the hotbed for the new technology in the United States. Three of the largest companies in the robotic milker marketplace--Lely, DeLaval and Gea--are all European based and have only recently begun expanding into North America.

While the mechanization of the robots may be complex, the goal for users is simple--flexibility. Farmers point to a series of advantages resulting from the implementation of robotic milkers, but the biggest perk has been the influx of free time. According to a survey of farmers using the new units, the average time of daily milking-related chores has dropped from 13 hours to four hours. This allows for more time dedicated to other farm tasks, family activities or even finding work away from the farm.

At Hageman Farms in northeast Iowa, the family points to the savings on labor costs as another major upside. The family of four has always done the work alone without needing hired help; however, a planned expansion to the herd size would have meant more need for labor.

They found their solution in a robotic parlour. Due to the highly automated nature of the system, they can now care for more cows and only two members of the family are needed to tend to milking duties.

When the Hagemans began their search for a new facility, they quickly settled on a Lely system. Lely has been the preeminent AMS company in the United States. Hagemans became fully operational with two Lely box stall robots in September 2011. Much like anything else in farming, they have found minor changes they would like to make, but overall have been very satisfied with their new system's ability to handle their 120-cow herd.

Lely's primary competitor in the U.S. has been DeLaval. The Swedish-based company has only recently been approved to construct robotic parlors in Iowa, and Adaway Dairy is one of only two farms in Iowa that currently operates a DeLaval system.

The family built two robots and are looking to add two more in the future. Currently they milk approximately 120 cows via the robots and 115 in their previous parlor. Most robots are designed to handle roughly 80 cows, and with over 200 cows in the total milking herd, the Adams family has aspirations of moving the entire herd into the robotic system.

Much like the Hagemans were confident in choosing Lely, the Adamses were quickly set on DeLaval. One of the main differences is the free flow versus guided flow. In a free flow, cows may enter the milker as often as they want; with a guided flow, an earlier separation gate stops each animal and determines whether or not they are ready to be milked; only cows with sufficient hours between milkings are sent to the parlor.

Another key difference between the brands is teat cleaning and preparation. While all robotic systems are highly customizable depending on user preference, Lely and DeLaval each have their own solution for teat prep.

This component of the automated milking systems has been a dividing line and was a major reason why the Adams family went with DeLaval. In the DeLaval system, there are teat preparation cups that clean the teat and subsequently dry them before and after milking. With a Lely milker, a cleaning brush wipes off the teats and a pre-treatment is applied to clean the teats.

While Lely and DeLaval have established themselves as market giants, other companies are working to provide dairy producers with further robotic milking options. German-based company Gea has started to find a foothold in the U.S.

Matt Nierling operates one of the newest Gea parlors in the states. According to Gea's Greg Larson, they currently have four test farms and 10 production farms in operation. Nierling's test farm was built in late 2011.

The north Iowa farmer had the opportunity to explore Gea robots in a unique fashion. Nierling traveled to Europe, where the parlors had been in use for years, to explore the success European farmers were having with different robotic systems.

After a few years of research, Nierling took the step up from a free stall barn and now milks 150 cows in a three-box Gea Westfalia Surge parlor. According to Nierling, it was an interesting first month getting the cows to adjust, but they have now eased into the system.

One unique aspect of the Gea robot compared to Lely and DeLaval is that it is a single robot. With the other two competitors, each box stall has its own robotic arm that cleans, preps and milks the cow. With the Surge parlor, there is a single robotic arm that moves from box to box.

No matter the farm or robot in use, all farmers agree that the feed provided is the most crucial aspect of robotic parlor success. The feed provided in the robotic stall is needed to entice the animals into the stall. It is often a high-protein, pelleted feed that is provided only in the stalls.

However, for such a specialized feedstuff, farmers must invest more money. With robotic milkers costing an estimated $200,000 to implement, according to the Iowa State University Extension dairy team, farmers are careful about constructing the premiere ration for their animals.

In line with the theme of automation for the robots, even the amount of feed released during milking is computer programmed. The identification monitor, which can placed around the neck or hind leg of each, is scanned into the computer system to determine the level of feed dispensed.

According to the farmers in the Iowa State Extension survey, this number can vary from four to 19 pounds per cow per day, largely depending on production and stage of lactation. The blend of pellets as well as forage or pasture available has a key to success.

Whether it is a Lely, DeLaval or Gea, the bottom line for most farmers is cost. Farmers surveyed had a unanimous stance that the AMS parlor increased cash flow; perhaps the most significant savings came from labor, with average savings of $41,975. Farmers also reported increased profitability through an average increase of 11.9 percent production per cow.

However, a simulation run by the county extension service shows that the financial benefits may be more marginal. According to the simulation--which assumed a 140 head herd, $17 per hundredweight milk and two AMS units installed for $210,000 per unit--the herd averaged 70 pounds per cow with the robotic milker in place.

While the costs for labor, management and heat detection saw decreases, the minimizing of expenses in these areas could not offset the increased expenses of the new machine. A combination of initial installation costs, higher feed costs and repair and service costs inflated the overall expenses to $89,740; this is opposed to the total positive impacts of $88,831.

Overall, this simulation showed a net financial impact of -$909. According to the economists from the extension service, the quality of life improvement and reduction in labor is the primary offsetting benefit against the negative cash flow. Nonetheless, the simulation is not steadfast and all components are subject to change and will vary from farm to farm.

In spite of the financial risk, the farmers of northeast Iowa view the AMS systems as worthwhile investments. The computerized technology and comprehensive record keeping has allowed them to better monitor and care for their animals and improve their overall livelihood as farmers.

Date: 10/1/2012


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