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University of Minnesota Extension

Do milking robots pay?

Quick facts

  • Robots are good at milking and can harvest high-quality milk consistently.
  • Robots improve lifestyle, decrease labor and allow family labor to milk more cows.
  • Proper management is key to robot success.
  • Using our comparison tool can help you decide if it’s better for you to invest in robots or parlors.

Common reasons to install robots

Producers don’t install robots because it’s the lowest cost option for harvesting milk. Surveys show that they install robots for three reasons.

  • To improve lifestyle.
    • Flexible daily schedule to attend kids’ activities or family events.
  • To decrease labor.
  • To milk more cows with family labor only.

Robots allow producers to free up labor previously dedicated to milking chores. Thus, producers may need to hire less labor, a cost savings that could go towards paying off loan payments for robots.

A producer may expect labor-saving within family labor. In this case, the producer must use it for something more productive than milking to improve total farm income. The most common option is to expand the herd size. Other options may include improving:

  • Reproduction.
  • Crop management to increase yield and forage quality.
  • Youngstock quality through better care.

If producers don’t choose something more productive than milking, this money will come out of family living.

Key factors to robotic milking

"Management makes milk — robots only harvest it," says Doug Kastenschmidt, a Wisconsin dairy farmer whose cows average over 100 pounds daily with robots.

The following are key to successfully managing robots.

  • Watch cow behavior and make changes to improve performance.
  • Have a skill and interest in the robot system.
    • Robots require more technical skills than other milking systems. Managers should enjoy using software for the greatest benefit.
    • Robots require a higher level of repair skill. Having someone on the farm to do simple repairs can lower maintenance costs.
  • Manage feed for consistent cow flow to the robots and for good performance.
  • Plan for future growth.
    • Box-type robots can milk about 50 to 70 cows per box. When expanding, you must do so in 60-cow increments and increase your investment in robots.
  • Have someone on the farm willing to take calls from the robot around the clock. If you aren’t prepared for this, it can be frustrating.

Deciding between robots and parlors

Installing milking robots requires a large capital investment. Calculating the cost of investment largely depends on what you assume about:

  • Projected decrease in labor.
  • Projected increase in milk production.
  • The financial terms of the investment.
  • Future prices of milk, feed, and labor.

Most research shows that robots and an increased milking frequency from twice daily to 2.5 to 3.0 times daily results in 3 to 5 pounds of milk per cow daily. Any further increases must come from improved cow comfort or care.

Robots change the type of labor needed and make labor time more flexible. Yet, most farms don’t have great reductions in total labor.

The calculations from our analysis show that a dairy producer with a 120 to 240 milking cow herd may find robotic milking more profitable than investing in new parlors. But at a 1,500-cow dairy, robots would need a projected 4 to 5 pounds more milk per cow daily than parlors to be as profitable.

Robots tend to yield higher milk production when compared to two times milking under parlors and lower milk production when compared to three times milking under parlors

Such comparison may change as technology evolves and if labor shortages increasingly put upward pressure on wages.

Authors: Jim Salfer, Extension educator, and Kota Minegishi

Reviewed in 2024

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