You can find robots of many styles and sizes across Northeast dairy farms, but rotaries are few and far between.
Now, the first robotic rotary in the Northeast has made its debut at Oakfield Corners Dairy in Oakfield, N.Y.
A 72-unit GEA DairyPro-Q robotic rotary was recently installed at the farm just north of Batavia. It went online last month.
It’s been a hectic couple of weeks getting the system right, but owner Jonathan Lamb says things have largely settled down and the cows are settled in.
“Every day is getting better. I have more time to spend with my family. There’s light at the end of the tunnel,” he says. “The technology on the robots, it’s unbelievable. The robots have performed at a really high level from the get-go. That technology is really on point. At this point in time, five weeks in, we’re milking 1,250 cows in three hours, 15 minutes with one person.”
The robotic rotary and holding area are the centerpiece of an ongoing construction project to modernize facilities. Oakfield Corners is part of the larger Lamb Farms Inc. that includes several farms in northwest New York and a dairy farm in Ohio. It’s one of the largest dairy operations in the East, with more than 8,000 milking cows and 12,000 acres of crops.
Transitioning the cows
There were struggles at the start transitioning some of the cows to the system, especially older cows.
“The old parlors are herringbone," says Alicia Lamb, Jonathan's wife. "They load in, get milked, they do their thing and on their way. It was kind of a double whammy where we went from a standalone system to they’re actually having to load onto a moving parlor unit."
Throw in the robot, and that added another stressor for the cows. As a result, the Lambs experienced a lot of sleepless nights working with the cows to get used to the system.
But of the 1,300 cows that have trained to it — Jonathan says that he trains 14 cows a day to the robot — only 50 cows have rejected the unit, below the 5% of the herd GEA told the Lambs to expect would reject it. Fifty-five cows are left to be trained to the unit.
Sick or treated cows get milked in the herringbone parlor.
Lots of planning
Jonathan traveled to Germany in 2016 to see the world’s first rotary robot. Since then, he, Alicia and other family members have traveled to other robotic rotaries in British Columbia, Canada; Texas; and the Midwest.
“When you build something like this, it’s not something that you build overnight,” Alicia says. “It takes a lot of research to get to this point.”
But a couple of things sold them about the setup. For one thing, they’ve worked with a rotary before as the home farm already has a manual rotary installed.
Labor challenges are another issue with the state mandating higher wages and overtime pay for farm employees.
The farm’s old herringbone parlors, at more than 40 years old, were in bad shape and in need of repair. And they’re much slower. The rotary takes just over three hours to milk 1,250 cows. By comparison, the herringbone takes eight hours to milk the same number of cows.
“Knowing the efficiency of these, we're able to milk cows a heckuva lot faster than we ever did in those old parlors," Alicia says.
Tweaks and improvements
Several tweaks have been made to accommodate the farm’s older cows, which tend to be larger.
For example, the headrails had to be moved higher for the cows to move their feet forward and get on the platform easier. And the loading area where cows get on had to widen a few inches. But Jonathan says that changes like this aren’t uncommon when you’ve installed a new milking system.
Each stall has its own robotic arm that swings underneath the udder and starts the milking process. Cameras on the robot guide each milking unit to the teat, and the milking process begins. The robot does the entire milking process, from pre-dip to post-dip and everything in between.
The rotary’s speed can be adjusted faster for younger cows that can load more rapidly and milk faster, or it can be slowed down for the farm’s older cows.
Along with the robotic barn, brand-new freestalls have been built, with another freestall barn now under construction. By the end of the year, the facility will have the capacity to milk 2,800 cows.
And while the installation of the robot might one day save on labor costs, the farm hasn’t laid off any employees.
“We’ve had a really good group of employees, and they're able to stay even though there's less people involved in the parlor," Alicia says. "They're out in the barns managing the heifers."
Milk quality is important to the Lambs, and Jonathan says that milk quality has stayed consistent with the robot.
“The GEA team we work with has been really unbelievable in their interest working with us,” he says. “We’ve had some challenges getting the cows transitioned in; they’ve been fantastic. Milk quality is really important to us. We have not missed a monthly quality premium in 14 years. We communicated ahead of time how important the quality is.”
So what advice does he have for other farmers thinking of a robotic system?
“There’s no such thing as doing too much research, taking time visiting facilities and doing research,” Jonathan says. “We traveled a lot. You almost can’t do too much, and other dairy farmers are happy to kind of give you their thoughts on what to do differently.”