Small farms turning milking over to robots

by Greg Booher LTC Farm Business Instructor

It is clear – high tech devices are here to stay. A friend of mine was just telling me how his granddaughter was going up to his flat screen television set and attempting to use it like a touch screen on a smart phone to display something other than what they were watching. Just this morning, I was talking to a feed consultant who also illustrated how his five year old son constructs Lego creations and controls them with robotic technology. Be assured, these kids will live and work in a far different world than we know.

Agriculture is not going to be left behind in this transformation to automated management. We are already familiar with the terms “precision ag” and “precision dairying”. Robotic milking has been prevalent in Europe since 1992. As of a year ago, Michigan had ten farms milking cows with robotics. The Knigges, near Omro, Wisconsin, installed their first two robots in 1999. They replaced the original two Lely robots in 2009 with the Lely A-3’s and make software updates on a regular basis. Knigges also just installed automated calf feeding and are extremely happy with that decision.

At the present, there are several volunteer milking systems (vms i.e. robots) dairies in southeastern Wisconsin and a pocket of quite a few in northwestern Wisconsin and into Minnesota. Popularity is increasing especially with dairymen who would prefer not to contend with the challenges often associated with a staff of employees. It appears that there is a segment of producers who have not had the desire to grow their dairies into the several hundred cow range and may be housing and milking in tie stall barns or others who have built smaller free stall barns and are milking in a flat barn parlor or switch milking in their old barns. Here in eastern Wisconsin a number of these producers have not made a big financial commitment to a parlor that they are financially married to and therefore are considering robotic milking as an option. Other characteristics of this group of dairymen, who are currently considering robotics and automated calf feeding, are farms that know dairying can provide a consistent and profitable income stream when combined with a grain operation. Diversification can spread risk when the grain markets are lower than desired; running grain and forage through cows can add value to those feeds.

A majority of the dairymen considering robots often seem to range in size from 65 cows to 150 cows. Some of these owner/operators are in their 40’s and 50’s and have children just now making a commitment to a dairy farming career. Many of these farms are well established and because they did not do large expansions over the last number of years, have a high enough level of equity to make the large investment into robotic milking a possibility.

A high level of equity, though, does not pay the bills or make a million dollar investment to milk 150 cows an attractive return-oninvestment. At this time, the paid labor rate to milk cows is not so high as to make robotic milking a cost effective alternative only from that point of view.

Those farms that have gone to robotic milking and those looking at the option are producers who would like to improve their quality of life by gaining the freedom to do something other than milk cows for hours on end every day. Being tied down to a twice or three times a day milking schedule does not match the rest of the world’s schedule and makes it difficult to participate in a number of family and other social activities. Those who have installed robotic milking machines are able to spend more quality time with their family and friends, attend their kids’ school functions, participate in off-farm activities more often and reduce the physical pressure on their bodies. The physical demands of milking cows can be very harsh on joints and muscles over a number of years. When family members aren’t tied down all day, every day milking cows in a stall barn or parlor, robots could free them to take an off-farm job. Off-farm employment allows individuals to add to their family’s income, may provide health insurance benefits and allows them to pursue other interests in life.

I would encourage dairy farmers to study their business options, visit and talk to industry professionals, and by all means talk to those producers who are now using robotics. Very little financial data, herd health and operational information has been generated and made available to the industry, so putting together business plans requires a considerable amount of guess work. A group of producers who would occasionally meet and share their experiences would be a goal I have in mind. Hopefully more information will follow in the near future. In the meantime, please feel free to call me and share your thoughts.

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