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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, which could go towards 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 skill 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 develop the skill to do simple repairs can lower maintenance cost.

  • Manage feed for consistent cow flow to the robots and for good performance.

  • Plan for future growth.

    • Box-type robots on the market 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.

 Net annual impact of robot system compared to a parlor system
Figure 1. Net annual impact of robot system compared to a parlor system Source: eXtension.org/pages/73995

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

Net annual impact of a 1,500-cow dairy with 25 robots
Figure 2. Net annual impact of a 1,500-cow dairy with 25 robots compared to a double-24 parlor milking 3X at different increases in daily milk production and wage inflation rates Source: eXtension.org

The calculations from our analysis earlier show that a dairy producer with 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 projected 4 to 5 pounds more milk per cow daily than parlors to be as profitable.

The main reason for this is that robots tend to yield:

  • Higher milk production when compared to two times milking under parlors

  • Lower milk production when compared to three times milking under parlors

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

Authors: Jim Salfer, Extension educator and Kota Minegishi, Extension dairy research - dairy production decision analytics

Reviewed in 2018

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