Automated milking systems have become top of mind for many of us who milk cows. While these installations come with a steep up-front cost, the reduced labor needs and associated predictability in milking cows have been positive additions. For those considering the investment, a great deal of research beforehand on your part will go a long way toward a successful installation.
The Round Table, “These farms milk with robots” on pages 46 to 48 of this issue, along with a National Dairy Quality Award winner who milks with robots featured in the January 10, 2018, edition, offer excellent perspective. All agree that visiting farms and taking good notes is a must. “We spent two years visiting dairy farms and conducting research,” said a New York dairyman. “Most of our information was gathered from visiting 25 to 30 different farms and meeting with three different manufacturing companies,” added an Iowa couple.
The investment is high. But as America’s first robot herd owner from Wisconsin said in a previous interview, “We thought of it as prepaying our labor bill. We could depreciate the expense and still have an asset with trade-in value.” When looking back on the investment, our Illinois Round Table participant had this to add, “We spent over a year in meetings between our lender, tax adviser, dairy supply company, and ag engineer.” Yes, planning both for the hard assets and balance sheet matters immensely.
Of course, there are lifestyle changes for both people and the cows. For small- to midsized farms that routinely milk cows with family labor, robots offer opportunities to attend more off-farm events. Most farm owners also report calmer cows that give more milk thanks in part to a greater milking frequency and robotic feed pushers that regularly keep feed in front of cows.
While less time is needed to milk cows, farm staff must learn computer software programs, interpret reports, and spend more time walking pens to observe cows. Milk quality reports . . . via conductivity, temperature, or other means . . . and rumination monitoring top the list of new tools for most robot herds. “Rumination has kept us from having sick cows,” said one herd owner. “With rumination, we can tell if a cow is coming into estrus or isn’t feeling well before showing any clinical symptoms,” said another.
For those who think robots might allow them more time to crop farm or do other ventures, think again. Whether milked conventionally or with robots, cows need top quality care. Robots do not change that paradigm. Take it from the robot herd owners who won the quality milk award and said, “Time spent in the barn still matters.”