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Notes from a western Pennsylvania dairy’s transition to a robotic milker.

January 17, 2020

6 Min Read
Cows inside a dairy barn
BUMPY TRANSITION: Depending on a farm’s setup and the age of the cows, transitioning to a robotic milking system can be stressful, especially the first few days. Photo courtesy of Andrew Sandeen

Editor’s note: Andrew Sandeen, a Penn State Extension dairy educator, spent several days this fall on a small dairy farm in Indiana County documenting the farm’s transition to a robotic setup. This article is a first-hand account of his visit and is meant to be an educational resource for farmers interested in transitioning to a robotic dairy setup.

Last fall, another robotic milking system was started up, this one on a small farm in Indiana County.

The farm transitioned from a conventional herringbone milking parlor to a single-robot setup in a freestall barn that was originally built in 1996.

Construction to accommodate the new milking system began last spring. Around the same time, an automated alley scraper was installed to clean alongside sand-bedded freestalls and to help minimize cow disturbance since the cows are no longer making group trips to the parlor.

Delivery of the new Lely Astronaut A5 unit was in late July, allowing two-and-a-half months for installation.

In the month before startup, the milking herd size was intentionally dropped. Some cows were culled; others were dried off the day before startup to bring the number of milking cows to exactly 60.

Transition day

It began with a final milking in the now-retired milking parlor, finishing at 7 a.m. The enthusiastic first cow entered the robot just a few hours later, at 10:30 a.m.

For the next couple of days a crew worked with the robot and cows around the clock. On the cow side of things, there were two to three people moving cows into the robot for the first 12 hours, which is how long it took to complete the first milking of all 60 cows. In hindsight, a two-man crew was adequate for working with the cows.

The owner, who spent most of the time on the equipment side of things, was available to lend a hand when difficult cow issues arose. A crew that was familiar with robotic milking setups was also available that first week to work with the owner on the equipment side.

Throughout the first milking, some cows spent quite a bit of time in the box.

The robot frequently struggled to find teats and attach, especially with rear teats close together.

As these cows were smaller, there was often a lot of forward and backwards movement, making the attachment and milking process even more difficult. Several cows were not comfortable with the robotic arm moving underneath them and fought it.

The arm took a beating but was impressively resilient. There were several times when a cow would manage to step over the arm with a hind leg, inhibiting progress until she stepped back over it.

Amidst the frequent kicking from the cows, there were times when the clear shield in front of the teat detection laser became dirty, causing further delays in getting the unit attached. Reverse tilt was the other difficult issue for the robot because the laser can’t detect the high-hanging rear teats when shone across the floor of the fore udder.

That first day, about one-third of the cows had trouble letting their milk down. Of course, some of them were coming in with just a few hours of milk to begin with, but stress had an effect, which was apparent when looking at production records.

Unexpectedly, during the first milking, milk from two of the 60 cows was not sent to the bulk tank by the robot. For one cow it was because she was recorded as a fresh cow and the robot was treating her according to the default setting — separating the milk for four days. It was never clear why it happened to the other cow, but it has not been a recurring issue.

The second time through the herd only took 9.5 hours. There was still a need for constantly having to get the cows to the commitment pen and into the box for milking, but it wasn’t as hard as the first time.

Robot finds its way

On Day 2, it was possible for just one person to manage cow flow most of the time, and the robot was much more efficient finding teats.

One of the issues that came up was a bottleneck in the area where cows exit from the robot. The cows congregated in the limited space. They were pretending to drink from the water trough, but they really trying to monitor activity in the robot area. This made it difficult for cows to exit at times.

Water pressure issues

On Day 3, an alarm went off for water flow and pressure at the robot. It was determined that the water pressure was less than adequate when water was also being used elsewhere in the barn.

This led to plans for adjusting how water is stored and used around the dairy, so the robot gets a reliable supply.

Cows settling in

By Day 4, things were running well. The cows didn’t need excessive handling, they were getting used to the finger gates around the milking area, and the owner was starting to get more sleep.

Some cows were so thrilled with their new setup that they would return to the robot more often than they should, checking to see if it would give them more grain.

That night the cows were left on their own for four hours and six of them voluntarily milked. The next night the cows were left alone for five hours and 16 voluntarily milked. The night after that the cows were left alone for six hours and the robot reported that 22 had been milked voluntarily.

Two weeks after startup, the owner had settled into a routine of fetching about eight cows in the morning and eight in the evening, with some regular offenders. Getting fresh cows started was deemed a two-person job.

Issues with bottlenecking or circling around the milking area were now minor. Dirt problems on the robot’s laser seemed to be a thing of the past.

Daily milk production was remarkably consistent from day to day.

Two-month checkup

I checked in again two months after startup and there were still a few fetch cows every day, but the process of checking reports and going after the important cows was easy to manage.

The cows with the fewest average milkings per day — 1.4 times — tended to be the ones on that fetch list. Other cows were getting to the robot as much as 3.7 times per day.

According to DHIA data for the herd, somatic cell counts for several cows increased slightly on the first test after transitioning, but SCC levels dropped back down by the next test a few weeks later. As for milk production, the older cows had a tougher transition, visiting the robot less frequently and having a more noticeable drop in production as compared to the younger cows. However, across the herd, milk production stayed consistent.

There will surely be more observations and adjustments, but this new way of managing milking, at least on this farm, is off to a good start.

Sandeen is a dairy educator with Penn State Cooperative Extension

Source: Penn State Cooperative Extension, which is solely responsible for the information provided and is wholly owned by the source. Informa Business Media and all its subsidiaries are not responsible for any of the content contained in this information asset.

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