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Keys to success with robotic milking systems

The use of robotic milking systems is growing rapidly throughout the United States. Farms with primarily family labor are installing robots to allow them to milk more cows without hiring labor and for improved time flexibility. Larger farms are considering robotic milking systems because of the challenge of finding and keeping hired labor. However, robotic milking systems are not without challenges. They require a large capital investment and excellent management for success. A whole system approach to management will increase the chances of success. Our observations indicate there are certain characteristics of farms that consistently achieve high production per cow and robot.

What do successful farms do? They . . .

1. Really enjoy working with cows.

These farms are curious about factors that affect cow behavior. They continually observe their cows and make adjustments to management and robot settings based on their observations.

2. Have excellent transition cow programs. 

A pre-calving program sets up cows for success. Pre-calving management that results in healthy and active fresh cows will promote early lactation intake and visits. A high number of early lactation visits with high intake sets those cows up for long-term success.

3. Produce high quality, consistent forage.

Forages with high fiber digestibility allow for the formulation of a higher energy partial mixed ration (PMR) without high starch. These higher forage diets minimize the risk of subclinical acidosis or digestive system problems, so cows are healthier and feel good.

4. Have excellent feeding and bunk management.

All cows thrive on diet consistency. This is particularly important on robot farms. Inconsistent diets can result in fluctuating PMR intakes and decreases in cow visits to the robot. Providing well-mixed diets that cows can’t sort and are always available increases the chance of success. Our research showed that farms with automatic feed push up had more milk per robot and per cow.

5. Use more than one robot feed.

The option of more than one feed through the robot allows more precise feeding of cows at different stages of lactation. It is more cost-effective to target some feed additives to early lactation or fresh cows.

6. Have barns designed for cow comfort and labor efficiency.

Comfortable stalls encourage cows to lie down, preventing standing cows from clogging up alleys. Automatic manure removal systems minimize cow disruptions in the pen. Our most recent project showed an association between automatic manure removal and milk production. Clean beds and alleys will result in cleaner cows and a lower somatic cell count. Consider sort pens that allow cows access to the robot. Separation pens may not increase milk production but can increase labor efficiency.

7. Minimize pen disruptions.

Design pens with strategically placed gates that allow easy fetching and separation of cows. Organize management interventions to minimize disruptions in the pen. An example would be to bed the stalls on the same day as dry off and veterinarian checks.

8. Help the robot succeed.

Timely robot maintenance and cleanliness is very important. Maintenance may be expensive, but poor performance is more expensive. Regularly update the robot software so you are using the most current version. Clean the laser and camera often. Remove udder hair so lasers and cameras can easily identify the teats for easy unit attachment. Use the software, creamery reports, and robot observation to monitor robot performance. Minor adjustments can have a big influence on performance. A well-trained and easily available technician from your local dealer or manufacturer is a must. Another good option is to have someone on your farm trained to repair the robots.

9. Optimize feed tables and milking permission settings.

A major advantage of robots is the ability to customize the number of milkings per cow per day and to more precisely feed cows closer to their nutrient requirements. Work with your nutritionist and robot company representatives to adjust feed and milk access table settings to maximize performance. Milk access tables may change depending on the number of cows per robot, milk production per cow, and amount of free time. Heifers and cows should have separate feed tables.

Robotic milking systems require excellent management for success. Proven management strategies can help to maximize milk production per robot and optimize labor efficiency.

Authors: Jim Salfer is an Extension dairy educator in St. Cloud, and Marcia Endres is an Extension dairy scientist.

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