Taking Milking To The Next Level

Published on Fri, 06/04/2021 - 11:16am

Taking Milking To The Next Level.

 By Maura Keller.

 Today’s robotic milkers are key instruments in helping dairies gain efficiencies in milk production, animal health and productivity. As the technology of robotic milkers continues to evolve, manufacturers are paying close attention to the key attributes of the technology that dairy producers are seeking.

According to Amy Steinke, director, product management and marketing at BouMatic, they feel producers are looking for a system that is easy to use.

“Time is also a big element in producer’s lives,” Steinke says. “Robotic milking allows them to choose the most efficient way of managing their time. Moreover, the milking robot solves the problems that arise from a lack of reliable labor resources which can prove to be very expensive. It can take the repetitive labor-intensive task of milking away and allow that time to be used towards other tasks on the farm that can add a higher value.”

BouMatic is the industry leader in milk harvest from conventional parlors and now that concept has been applied to the companies newly launched automatic milking system, the Gemini.

Through the company’s patented milk-from-the-rear design with multiple box options, producers can milk a single cow or two cows at the same time.

“We run a highly efficient machine on any size dairy, maximizing margins, labor, and herd performance,” Steinke says. “Our automated milking system leverages the premier BouMatic equipment bringing our milking philosophy of ‘gently, quickly, completely to the robotic parlor.”

As Jason French, VMS solution manager at DeLaval explains, DeLaval was an early adopter to robotics within the milking equipment business and developed the VMS, which means Voluntary Milking System, in the late 1990s.

The DeLaval VMS is a single box-style robot designed to help family farms and even larger dairies gain efficiencies in key aspects of their farm, like labor, milk production and cow health. It also offers producers more flexibility in how and when they manage their work.

“With so much technology built into today’s milking robot, innovation is focused on how to make the robot more efficient and productive,” French says. “Essentially, this equates to how much milk can be harvested by the robot and how many cows can that robot look after.”

GEA Farm Technologies offers two different milking robot configurations that utilize the same robotic milking module. Producers can choose a box robot system called the GEA DairyRobot R9500 or they can choose a fully automated robotic rotary system called GEA DairyProQ. 

The DairyProQ can be sized from 28-80 stalls to suit a variety of herd sizes and in fact bring robotic milking technology to a much larger herd size segment that previously was not adapting robots as quickly as smaller farms. 

As Robin Matthayasack, director of marketing at GEA Farm Technologies, Inc. explains, the DairyProQ can also be installed with a short-load configuration, meaning you can size your rotary for 28 stalls, but only install 14 robot modules initially, allowing producers to minimize upfront investment yet have room to grow the herd over time, which is a plus for many farm sizes.

“The GEA DairyProQ is a unique system because it allows you to gain the benefits of consistent, reliable milking, with the animal data associated with a traditional box-robotic milking facility – all while allowing you to continue using your proven management strategies,” Matthayasack says.

The biggest trends Matthayasack is seeing in the industry is more sensors and data that are coming out of the robots. They help producers efficiently milk cows with less labor, but they also help producers know more about each individual cow so that you can manage the herd better, catch sick cows sooner, and target treatments for faster recovery. 

For example, the GEA DairyMilk M6850 somatic cell count sensor continuously monitors milk flow out of each individual quarter—at every milking. “So producers can do a much more thorough and accurate job of mastitis identification and early diagnosis, by pinpointing precisely which quarter is affected – all with better data,” Matthayasack says. The milk is not comingled for sampling, and there is no guesswork on the affected quarter—the sensors provide information sooner than traditional methods and more accurately.”
Considerations To Make

When evaluating the ideal robotic milkers for their needs, producers need to consider what their management style is for their herd. As Steinke explains, producers need to think about their performance objectives that they have for their operation.

“Ideally looking at what your herd averages are and what your goals are for the next upcoming years,” Steinke says. “Automated milking means change. You may change the composition of the herd, change how you feed and change how you manage your operation. Really understanding what your end goals are will be the deciding factor on if automated milking is the right option for you.”
French says that when producers are looking at the overall ROI of robotic milkers, it comes down to two things: cost of ownership and determining if it is meeting the goals that were set in the beginning.

“The goals may be to reduce labor on the farm, to milk high production cows more often, or to use the data gathered by the robot for better management decision making,” French says. “Producers are looking for robots that are easy to maintain, cow-friendly and dependable.”

DeLaval recently released its newest version with the DeLaval VMS V300 robot. The V300 features DeLaval Insight,  which is the time-of-flight camera that has increased attachment rate to 99.8%. This overall accuracy also benefits the DeLaval PureFlow system. This gentle teat cleaning process ensures that the cow is prepared to maximize her milk flow during the milking process. The overall efficiency of the milking process has decreased the amount of time in the robot for the cow and maximized the number of cows per robot.

For dairy producers interested in robotic milking, French says they will need to consider how to transition from their current manual milking system to a robotic milking system to milk their cows. This could be done by retrofitting their current barn or going to a new green site where the new robot barn will be placed.

“However, in both situations, the barn needs to give the right amount of space for cows to eat, rest, socialize and be comfortable to go to the robot area,” French says. “Make sure you set up your facility for success. Once you have that aspect of milk harvesting with a robot realized, then look at what that robot can do in regards to gathering accurate data for herd management. The great saying of ‘you can’t manage what you don’t measure is very true, and if you have more data available to help you manage your operation, then you can make more timely decisions to the overall health of your herd.”

One common mistake some producers make is assuming that all their cows are compatible with robotic milkers. Another mistake is assuming that robotic milkers will make up for sub-optimal management practices.

“Some also underestimate the importance for proper barn layout, and the cow flow patterns to assure ideal nutrition and water sources within that pattern and the cow behavior associated with different spacing around the robots,” Steinke says.  

Also, prospects for robots need to keep in mind that the milking robot is a machine, and all machines and operations still require service.

 “They underestimate the importance of regular service and maintenance,” Steinke says. “We find that dairymen who are most successful make service and maintenance a priority and are engaged in regular review of insights that take them in the direction of their operational goals.”

One mistake the DeLaval team sometime sees is when a producer thinks a robot will solve everything. If you were to think of any piece of machinery on your farm operating 24/7, how would you manage it?

“Producers need to set goals on many different aspects when it comes to robotic milking on their farm, and a lot has to do with how are they going to manage the different aspects that will get them to their goals,” French says. If you want to get an average of three milkings per day with your herd, then you have to train your heifers to come to the robot in a way that will give them a great experience for the future.

“If you want high production, then you have to dial in your reproduction, nutrition and cow health. If you want to have low running costs on your robot, then you have to commit to keeping it clean and maintained regularly,” French says. “The robot needs assistance still for it to work at the level you want it to, and that takes time and effort from the producer or the staff managing these dairy operations.”

Matthayasack’s advice to producers considering robotic milking systems is to visit as many robot farms as possible and to also start planning as early as possible. There are so many management considerations to evaluate when choosing the next milking system for a dairy—it is no small task.

“Factors that impact your lifestyle, your cow’s health and welfare, and labor availability in your area are all considerations,” Matthayasack says. “Your current or future housing facility plans and desire to grow your herd size are also important factors. Dairy producers should establish their project team and work closely with their local equipment dealer to evaluate all options and make the best decision to take their dairy to the next level.”

Down the Road
As technology within the robotic sector continually evolves, it’s important the dairy producers recognize that the increasing use of artificial intelligence (AI) in conjunction with advancements in milking and robotic technologies will provide higher levels of automation and increased accuracy of insights.

As Matthayasack explains, robotic milking technology will continue to be data-driven and be able to collect even more information each time the cow is milked to help manage the cow individually, and the entire herd, better and better. 

“At GEA, we also believe aspects of robotic milking technology or different levels of automation will continue to elevate the sophistication of conventional farms and allow more dairy operations of varying size to reap the benefits of a higher-tech milking process with higher-tech equipment,” Matthayasack says. “All farms will also benefit from advancements in powerful software and data analysis behind the scenes that delivers producers the information and tools they need to manage growing herds with less manpower per cow, yet with more thorough cow care overall.”