"I think robotic milking can do a tremendous amount to reduce dairy farm labor, and on smaller farms, it can also improve the lifestyle of the operator," Rodenburg said during the Hoard's Dairyman webinar "Barn design for robotic milking."
"If properly implemented, robots can reduce labor in the barn by as much as 30 to 40 percent," he said. "Very often, though, we don't succeed at that in practice."
In his presentation, Rodenburg highlighted three reasons robotic milking barns don't deliver optimum results:
Inefficient facilities for separation and handling of cows. Farmers may no longer be milking cows, but without proper handling facilities for individual cows and groups, they may spend half the day moving cows around, Rodenburg said.
Failure to provide for special needs cows. Rodenburg explained that barns should have an area for fresh and lame cows close to the robots in an environment where they will thrive, like a bedded pack.
Failure to recognize the importance of behavior and social rank of cows. According to Rodenburg, this isn't as big of a problem, but it can impact how cows move through the system.
When building a robot barn, a producer must decide between free traffic or guided traffic design. In free-traffic barns, cows have access to feeding and resting areas with no restriction.
In guided traffic barns, one-way gates block the route from the feedbunk to the resting area. Thus, cows must enter the milking robot to either be milked or denied (if they were recently milked) before eating or resting.
Both can work very well with good management, Rodenburg noted. But when things go a little wrong in guided traffic systems, the cows suffer more, with fewer meals and longer waiting times. In a free-traffic system, the farmer suffers because he has to catch more cows.
"I design barns for both, but for me, cow comfort is absolutely key," he said. "For that reason, I have a strong preference for free traffic."
To learn more about the finer points of robot barn design, watch the webinar once it's posted (http://www.hoards.com/webinars), which was sponsored by Lely. (http://www.lelyna.com/) Our previous webinars are also archived for viewing.
The 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.