Extension Logo
Extension Logo
University of Minnesota Extension

Are milking robots right for you?

Robot milkers are often touted as the wave of the future but are they the right choice for you? Most farms are happy with the decision to install robotic milking systems, but other farms with robots struggle and question why they made the change.

There is nothing magical about robots. Installing robots is simply an economic decision to trade milking labor (hopefully) for capital invested in a more expensive milking system. Here are some points to ponder when considering a robotic milking system.

Business and personal goals

  • What do you want your business to look like in 5 to 10 years?
  • What is the long-term right size for your farm?
  • What is the primary goal of installing robots?
    • to improve lifestyle?
    • minimize hired labor?
    • expand the potential labor pool?
    • maximize productivity per robot?
    • or something else?

Some of these goals have tradeoffs and will affect performance expectations. These changes could allow you to remain competitive in the rapidly changing dairy industry. If this change is part of a generational transition plan, this investment should provide financial stability for the retiring generation.

Consider how much longer you want to milk cows when calculating the time for paying off your investment. A large investment in a new facility is a long-term commitment to remain in the dairy industry.

Does the cash flow make sense?

Robots primarily pay for themselves through higher milk production per robot per cow and reduced labor costs. But many farmers don’t save as much on labor as they hoped. Below are factors that can affect the financial viability of robots.

Increase in milk production

Three factors that affect the change in milk production when switching to robots are milking frequency, the barn effect, and the labor-sparing effect.

  1. Increasing milking frequency from two times a day to three times a day will increase production by about 8 pounds per cow per day. This also assumes cows are milked at eight-hour intervals; the increase will be less with uneven milking intervals. Milking the right cows at the right time is key to robot performance.
  2. The barn effect includes less time away from the pen, more comfortable stalls and potentially more stable cow groups.
  3. The labor-sparing effect includes:
    • Saved milking time: The most successful farmers take the time they save milking and re-invest it into better managing the cows, harvesting better forage or another high-value activity. This will manifest itself in higher production.
    • Lower labor costs: If hired labor is reduced, the savings can be used to make robot payments. But if the entire workforce is family labor, labor savings can’t be used to make robot payments unless the family’s standard of living is decreased. This can be a challenge if a new generation of family workers joins the operation at the same time robots are installed unless there is a concurrent increase in herd size.

To offset the cost of robots, family members could work off the farm, you could add another enterprise, expand the cow herd or greatly increase cow productivity.

Hybrid systems

Milking in a parlor and by robot can result in higher milk production per robot. If your current milking system is working well, milking fresh, treated, or even a salable milk group of cows will improve cash flow, but time flexibility will be reduced.

Robot maintenance

If you have the time and skill to repair the robots yourself, that will keep them running and decrease repair costs. Service technicians should periodically tune up the robots to make sure they are running at peak efficiency.

Useful data

Robot systems provide lots of data that can assist in herd management.

Expect higher costs

Maintenance costs will be higher. You are purchasing equipment that is expected to run 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. Robots contain sensors, lasers, 3D cameras, computer boards, valves, and other expensive parts you can’t buy at the hardware store.

Feed costs will be higher, especially if a custom pellet is fed. How much depends on the amount of pellet fed, formulation and pelleting and delivery costs.

The challenges of robots

Items to consider before installing robots:

  • Someone always needs to be on call to respond to phone alarms.
  • Managing milk quality can be more challenging, especially the management of contagious organisms. High SCC can be more difficult to troubleshoot.
  • Feeding management is trickier. It must be excellent to keep cows moving in the barn and to keep fetch cow numbers low.
  • Training heifers can be a pain.
  • You need to give up some control. The most successful robot managers work with the cow’s natural behavior to maximize performance.

Robotic milking is a great choice for many farmers. It is worth thinking about if your goals and management style will lead to success.

Author: Jim Salfer, Extension dairy educator

Related topics: Dairy News Featured news
Page survey

© 2024 Regents of the University of Minnesota. All rights reserved. The University of Minnesota is an equal opportunity educator and employer.