What’s it like to hire robots as milkers?

by Greg Booher LTC Farm Business Instructor

What does it take for a family to make a financial decision that could result in great success or financial ruin? Owning your own business is not for everyone. I have a small farm myself. There have been times I have laid awake at night with worry. Most Americans have no understanding about the risk farm operators take to secure a profitable future. Their risk provides Americans with a low cost, safe and an abundant supply of food for their families.

I recently had the opportunity to interview a farm family one year after they made the decision to install a Lely A-4 robot on their family dairy in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin. Over the next few articles, I will share with you how this dairy farm family adjusted to the retooling of their dairy’s housing and how they transition to milking with a robot.

When you build a new barn and install a robot, it goes without saying how big a decision this had to be for them. The decision was made somewhat easier for the family since they have a next family generation of dairymen interested in continuing in their dairy business. Secondly, their existing facility was at the end of its useful life and it was time to build a new facility that would improve the environment for their cows.

Changing from stall barn housing and milking to free stall housing and robotic milking is, to say the least, a lot of change to assume for the operators as well as the cows. What is this transition like for the herdspeople and the cows who are work in this new environment? How do the herdspeople help their cows transition to an entirely new environment? How does this new style of managing cows change the daily routine for the operators? These are some of the questions that will be addressed in this series of article on precision dairying.

Some dairy farms will have already made the change to free stall housing for their cows and will only be changing to robotic milking where other farms may convert to freetall housing, driveby feeding and robotic milking all at the same time. Whether this transition is more difficult than just changing the milking approach is difficult to assess. It can be argued that the duel transition could be easier for the cows because everything is different for them and they only need to transition once. In the stall barn, they have their own individual stall complete with feed in front of them, water at immediate availability and the herdsmen comes to them to be milked. When the cow’s environment and the milking regime is changed, she is in a way going off to college where she now lives in group housing, experiences cafeteria style dining and is also required to find where to go to be milked on their new campus.

Past experience has taught us when a dairy converts from tie stalls to free stall housing and group feeding, the cow walking surface must be free from concrete burs often formed when the new concrete alleys are poured. This can cause cows to develop foot problems that will hinder a herd’s adjustment to their new environment. Free stall design is also critical. Cows must know they can lie down and easily get up and feel they have adequate room in their new bed. Older cows with physical problems will likely not adjust well to their new environment and might best be culled from the herd before moving the herd to the new housing. Much like people – young folks normally adjust to major changes better than older people. In the case of the Fond du Lac County producer, they chose to build the free stall barn a year in advance before going to robotic milking. This housing transition was a success for them without losing any more cows than would normally be experienced.

Well, that is a great start on this series on the revolution to precision dairy farming that is now underway in rural America. In the next article we will explore how well the Fond du Lac County producer did as they and their cows transitioned to being milked by a robot.

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