The robots are coming, at least into some Nebraska dairy barns. Two Nebraska dairies are installing robotics at their operations, and at least one more is in the permitting process, according to Nebraska Dairy Extension educator Kim Clark. It is estimated that 50 dairies in the Great Plains and Upper Midwest use robotics, while many others are in the process of consideration or installation.
For dairies considering adding robotic milking systems (RMSs), there are several management factors that will impact their decision-making, according to Kota Minegishi, dairy production decision analytics assistant professor at the University of Minnesota. Minegishi discussed these considerations with producers at an I-29 Moo-University workshop in Norfolk recently. He estimated there are over 35,000 RMSs worldwide, and about 5,180 such systems were sold in 2014.
Deciding what sized dairies benefit the most from a profitability standpoint depends on the dairy management, Minegishi said. Profitability with robots versus conventional labor and milking parlors is also a individualized question, he noted. In many cases, an improved lifestyle for dairy owners and operators is the main reason for adding robotics. Profitability also depends on the utilization of the milking parlor, because many parlors are not being fully utilized all the time.
The investment for robotics is often greater than for a new double-eight parlor, for instance. Profitability, then, depends on if milk production is less, equal to or greater with robotics versus a conventional milking system. With time spent finding, training and maintaining good labor, RMS offers a consistent milking routine for the cows without having to worry about laborers being late to work, filling in on holidays and days off, or even training them in the first place. In addition, RMS provides operators with more than 100 measurements at every milking, so the increase in data available for decision-making is mind-boggling.
That doesn't mean that there aren't challenges, Minegishi said. An RMS costs more upfront than a conventional milking parlor, and there are repair and maintenance costs to these systems.
Getting more milk per robot is one of the key factors to making these systems profitable, according to Minegishi. Keeping milk numbers up requires a well-balanced feed ration and high reproductive efficiency, along with good cow comfort. To get the most out of RMS, cows are needed that are not too fidgety and attach to the milking systems rapidly and milk quickly.
"Teat placement on the cow changes the time of attachment for the RMS," Minegishi said. "The system calibrates the robot to each cow. Cow standability will change the time it takes to attach as well." Attachment time of the milker could be as little as a minute for cows that stand still, but it could take a few minutes for cows that are more fidgety in the box. An average placement time would be two minutes, he said.
Milking is just one way robots are being employed in modern dairies. "Robots are not confined to milking," Clark noted. "There are robots for automatic calf feeders, feed pushers and manure pushers. It seems the technology is rapidly evolving in the dairy industry, and more producers are looking into robots so they can focus their time and attention to other areas of the farm."