Feb. 4 2014 08:05 AM

A Canadian consultant shares his four cornerstones to designing barns for robotic milkers.

Robotic milking systems can fit in a variety of barn layouts, but a focus on the cows is a must. Jack Rodenburg from DairyLogix Consulting in Ontario, Canada, shared his four main cornerstones for designing barns for robotic milkers last week at the Wisconsin Frame Builders Association annual conference.

cow being milked by a robot

According to Rodenburg, "Cow comfort is the primary cornerstone." Besides well-designed and managed stalls and an inviting robot, overall barn layout is critical.

A producer must decide between free or forced traffic. In free-traffic barns, cows have access to feeding and resting areas with no restriction. In this setup, the farmer has to fetch more cows that don't come up for milking on their own, said Rodenburg.

In forced-traffic barns, one-way gates block the route from the feedbunk to the resting area. Thus, cows must enter the milking box to either be milked or denied (if they were recently milked) before eating or resting. Forced-traffic barns mean fewer cows to fetch, but Rodenburg explained that cows suffer with fewer meals and more time standing in line.

Rodenburg says he sides with the cows and prefers a free-traffic system. And even though fetching cows is more work, he noted that, "It can be a good management tool." A new fetch cow may be a sick cow, and earlier identification could mean faster and more successful treatment.

The second cornerstone, labor efficiency, ties into barn design. In robotic milking, it is critical to be able to do jobs with one person, he said. Make cattle handling simple and use enough gates. Rodenburg added, "You cost way more than a gate, and you intimidate a cow more." If there is a spot in the barn where a person has had to stand multiple times, it is a place that needs a gate, he said.

The third cornerstone is to put an emphasis on value, not cost, when designing the building and selecting equipment. This includes the barn, the robots, the robot room and the office. "A robot farmer spends more time in the office and less time in the barn," Rodenburg said, so making this a workable space is imperative.

Finally, the design should be expandable for future growth. Since well-managed robot milking barns require less labor, many may want to add cows and machines someday, he said.

Rodenburg is enthusiastic about what robotic milking systems and precision technology can do to help maintain smaller family farms. "Mechanism in dairy production has driven us to larger and larger farms," he said. "I am excited for this new technology, not just for what it can do for the farm and the cow but also for the community."

Abby blog footerThe author is an associate editor and covers animal health, dairy housing and equipment, and nutrient management. She grew up on a dairy farm near Plymouth, Wis., and previously served as a University of Wisconsin agricultural extension agent. She received a master's degree from North Carolina State University and a bachelor's from University of Wisconsin-Madison.