Comparing Robots to Parlors: The Basics You Need to Know

Published on Fri, 06/19/2020 - 10:03am

 Comparing Robots to Parlors: The Basics You Need to Know

 By Jaclyn Krymowski

 Robots don’t make milk; they only harvest it.” If you’ve explored the world of automated milking in any capacity, chances are you’ve heard this line or something similar. There’s plenty of truth behind this little phrase, and while it might seem to lean more towards a negative perspective of robots, the “how” milk is harvested becomes all the more important. In a world driven by quality, flexibility and limited labor, more milk no longer equals a bigger paycheck. In those regards, the debate rages on - what is the best way to harvest milk? Is it the tried and true parlor backed by (hopefully) reliable labor? Or is it a pre-programmed system with greater consistency?

As farms tighten their belts while simultaneously being forced to expand or at least upgrade, many find themselves choosing between a parlor update or a full-blown robot installation. You could go down rabbit holes for days chasing multiple equations, perspectives and benchmarks on what makes a “successful” milking system. Every one of these components can be scrutinized and examined under a microscope, but before delving into any one detail, it can be helpful for a dairy producer to sit back and do a basic apples to oranges comparison

Of Labor Savings
Its been previously estimated there are over 35,000 automated milking systems in the world, and that number is a bit outdated. We can assume that number is, easily, quite a bit higher than that. A good percentage of such systems are on operations who rely heavily on family, or would like to eliminate hired labor, and want the greater flexibility that comes without having to commit to daily milking. In fact, this added convenience often trumps the glaring fact that robots are not the lowest cost option for milking systems. Different kinds of automated systems are also being directed towards larger operations, including add-ons to traditional rotary parlors, but in many of their cases the cost of hiring isn’t quite breakeven for the expenses of installation and maintenance.
Besides freedom and flexibility, the rising cost and availability of labor has further accelerated the dawn the robotic era. This is a rising concern on dairies large and small. The severity varies depending on region, but the issue is pretty much universal, undeniably growing and ongoing.
Quality of labor is another aspect that cannot be disregarded. Obviously, robots are hardly foolproof. They require maintenance, they break, they get glitches, they require expensive service calls and warranties expire. Employees certainly don’t have these upfront same costs, but they are very subject to human error which is costly in its own right. Robots can be programmed to automatically identify, and dump treated cows and mastic milk. They eliminate the need to manually markup cows and hope the night crew was being vigilant.

Direct your management
Time saved by a robotic system is arguably your most valuable asset. But it can only pay off if that time can be better channeled and perfected elsewhere. This is where the true cost and return on investment of robots gets extremely varied and tricky to slice out. If labor can be directed to accelerate another aspect of the farm that was lacking before, such as reproduction, heifer rearing, and crop work, there could be cost savings and greater income opportunities.
You will also need to allot time for routine robot maintenance and other issues that may arise unexpectedly. You will essentially be on call twenty-four hours a day seven days a week. And you better hope you have a good relationship with whoever is providing you service with your products.
Not trying to use labor more effectively in other areas would be a lost opportunity and can greatly affect the return on investment of robots in the first place. If you are already an excellent people manager, and you have enough staff to keep milkings covered without getting pinched, robots may not necessarily buy you more time as opposed to eliminating staff. This works very well if your economics of scale are to a breakeven point where the hourly wage is less than upfront installation costs.

Cost analysis
Analyzing the costs and the pros and cons are where things get extremely difficult considering a parlor upgrade or whole new fully automated outfit. It requires consulting with the best experts you can get ahold of and scrutinizing the different perspectives they have to offer in terms of economics, equipment and expectations. If you manage robots right, you can stand to increase your milk yield and quality if it allows for more time to focus on things like cow comfort and forage. On the flipside, you can also lose a lot of milk if cows are trained improperly, not fetched or the system gets faulty. As a rule of thumb, when managed properly, robots tend to have the higher milk production compared to two milkings in parlors and less milk production compared to three parlor milkings.
The University of Minnesota Dairy Extension Team developed a comparison tool to compare projections for investing in a robots. The logarithm runs an economic analysis based on inputs in the following areas: projected decrease in labor and increase in milk production, specific financial terms of the investment, and the future prices of milk, feed and labor factors.
The main cost of a robot is the initial investment, which is pretty significant. This can get astronomically more expensive if it requires building a brand new barn, and retrofitting a pre-existing one isn’t necessarily cheap either. One of the benefits to upgrading an old parlor is that you don’t need to have such drastic construction costs and changes. Traffic flow and routines don’t need to be disturbed, and you can get away with more minimal adjustments if you so choose. There really is something to be said about the comfort and familiarity of the parlor and what works. Additionally, you will have to change or at least re-direct your culling practices if you are committed to robots and breeding cows that work well with them.
Those, in a nutshell, are some of the most basic areas to investigate when comparing parlor or robots. When making such a huge decision in terms of money management, you owe it to yourself and your farm to utilize several experts in several fields, and not just those who are looking to sell you something. Seek out economists, dairy analysts, researchers, and other managers who have experienced the same things you are looking into. And of course, nothing is quite like touring other farms to see systems you’re interested in to see them in action.