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A look at the economics of robotic milkers

dairy operation
MILK BY ROBOT: This dairy operation decided that investing in robotic milkers was its best economic option over time.
Robotic milkers may pay out for some operations, but might not make sense for everyone.

Dairy farming is a full-time job that normally keeps people on a strict schedule. However, some dairy farmers are finding ways to change how they manage their farm. The Jones family, Star City, found their method back in 2003 when they decided to invest in an automatic milking system. This system completely changed the way their farm operates.

The Jones family invested in an automatic milking machine that allowed them to slightly expand their farm and gave them more free time. This wasn’t an impulse decision. They analyzed what would be best for them and what would be most beneficial to their farm.

The Joneses quickly realized that this new system helped them easily identify each cow, determine how much milk she was producing, and know if she was ill. Pam and Sammy Jones explain that overall maintenance and care for the herd has become much easier and more efficient.  

Advantages vs. disadvantages
Many economic considerations must be taken into account before deciding whether or not a robotic system is right for your dairy operation, experts say. The cost alone for one milking robot can range from $180,000 to $220,000. One of the first considerations should be: How big is your herd and will the robot keep up?  University of Minnesota Extension educator and dairy specialist Jim Salfer says most robots are able to milk 50 to 70 cows per milking unit.

The robot will require technical maintenance, so someone knowledgeable about this technology will always need to be on call. To get the most out of this system, the farm must be under excellent management, especially when it comes to feed management, Salfer says. This will ensure the cows consistently visit the robot.

This new equipment may make the cows unsure of what to do, and they won’t understand how it works. Salfer explains that the first three weeks are the most difficult, when trying to figure out the technology and get the herd to adjust. It could take up to a year for the cows to adjust fully.

Management shift
One important factor is how to drive the cows to the robot. Salfer says, “It takes a different type of management; there is a little less science, and more of an art to managing it.” A manager must learn to encourage the cows to go to the milker. Higher forage rations can boost cow interest, as well as flavor-enhanced pellets or roasted soybeans.

With the reduction of hired labor comes a different type of workforce and management demands. Typically, most producers with robotic farms incorporate family as the employees, since they will be present for the short hours of work.

Robotic milkers require the manager to be on call 24/7, as opposed to being available during the two or three times cows are milked at the parlor. To maximize efficiency, farmers should consider other investments, such as automatic feed pushers and/or manure scrapers.

Barn structure is also important. The layout of the barn should be ideal and practical to both the cows and robots, Salfer says. The ability for cows to access the robot at all time is important, and can be done through having an open concept provided by a wide alley.

Maintenance and repair costs should be considered. With cows being milked more often by the robots, you have the opportunity to reduce herd size. Having a smaller herd with high-producing cows can counter those maintenance and repair costs.

Are robotic milkers worth it?      
When taking a financial standpoint on robots, think about labor savings and the amount of milk produced. Salfer says the main reason people look into robots is to expand and spend less on labor costs. The University of Minnesota provides a web application that allows producers to compare the economics of robotic milking to parlor milking-based systems. 

An example using your own information  may offer better insight to this technology. In the University of Minnesota’s web application, producers enter information so the computer program can compare choices. A projected herd size of 180 cows with a robotic system results in a slightly higher profit than that of a parlor system, given several assumptions. Most of the figures entered are averages based on a range.

Minnesota’s Robot vs. Parlor web application can calculate and let you see comparisons between the two systems before you actually make a decision.

Is this right for you?
Think of many considerations before making the decision to invest in this technology. The availability of labor may be a factor that can help make this decision easier. Labor may be at risk if foreign workers choose not to work on dairy farms, and especially if tighter immigration laws are passed in the U.S. 

Before making the decision to invest in this robotic technology, weigh your options on the amount of time and money you want to spend.

Management can shift to a more flexible schedule, but managers will learn that more emphasis is placed on observing the environment of the cows and what can be done to improve it.

Every farm is different, Salfer notes. Figure out what would work best for you. Being realistic and analyzing one’s farm from a financial standpoint requires a great deal of resources and knowledge. Think about what the goals are for the farm, both personally and financially, he concludes.

Rexing and Bender are seniors in ag communication at Purdue University.



TAGS: Livestock
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