Promises and potential of automated milking systems

What if you could spare labor time from milking and use this time to focus on the animals, the decision-making process, and fine-tune adjustments?

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Holstein lactating cows waiting for their turn to be milked in an automated milking system boot. Photo by Shutterstock.

The automation of many processes in farming in both crop production and animal care has been increasing. One automation, using robots on small and large farms worldwide, has led to improvements in labor efficiency, animal wellbeing and changes in the quality of life for farm owners and employees.

The milking routine is unquestionably the most time-consuming chore on dairies, and its automation represents a relief for most farmers. The automatic milking system (AMS) is not an entirely new technology, as the first AMS was installed in the Netherlands in 1992. The most immediate advantage of this technology is that it allows cows to be milked several times a day, in the automated system, without requiring much human labor.

Spared labor from the milking routine is not the only advantage realized when this system is adopted. The fully automatic milking package also provides essential information to the farmers regarding individual cow health, welfare, behavior, and nutrition. This gives producers a valuable source of data that can be used in the decision-making process on the farm.

Michigan's first AMS system was installed in 2009. According to Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) data, there are currently 243 robotic milking units up and running on 55 farms in the state. The primary reasons for adopting robotic milking vary among farms. While smaller dairies have typically adopted AMS to achieve a more flexible work schedule and a better quality of life, larger dairies are considering transitioning to AMS due to future labor availability concerns and the potential it offers for improving the time demands on cows each day.

In a survey published in the journal Animal by Tse and colleagues, farms with small herds with an average of 85 cows that transitioned to AMS reported a 20% reduction in the number of employees and increases in milk yield. In a study by Duplessis and colleagues performed with small herds that transitioned from conventional to AMS systems, the actual changes after adoption of AMS were measured to compare with the producer perception. They reported that about 40% of the producers accurately perceived the milk yield changes. In fact, 34% increased, 48% maintained the same, and 18% had a reduction in milk production after transitioning. In a Journal of Dairy Science article, Salfer and others modeled the profitability of AMS compared to the conventional system and reported that farms with small and medium-size herds might be more profitable when adopting the automated systems. However, it is important to notice that about half of the profit observed when AMS is adopted is from labor savings, if 100% is family labor then it will only pay off if the labor is used to perform another task at the dairy.

Survey data presented last July at the American Dairy Science Association meeting by Lage and others showed that for dairy farms with seven or more milking robot units, the most important reasons given for adopting AMS were to reduce labor costs (84.6%), improve cow's welfare (76.9%) improve herd performance (73.1%), and to reduce the number of employees (69.2%). They also reported that respondents strongly agreed that AMS improved the quality of life of their cows (50%) and improved milk production and reproductive performance (36%). However, responders to this survey were neutral about the impacts of AMS on herd profitability. Fifty-four percent of the responders also agree that the transition to automated milking improved their employee's quality of life.

From the animal perspective, cows voluntarily milked in robots will spend less time waiting in crowded areas and milk parlors, using this extra time to eat and rest. Presumably, this should improve their comfort and welfare. In addition, the transition from conventional twice-daily milking systems to automatic milking systems often results in a milk production increase of 5 to 10%, according to an article published by De Koning at the first North American Conference on Precision Dairy Management. Tse and colleagues also reported that 81% of the surveyed dairy farmers observed an increase in milk production after adopting AMS. 

Just like any other system, the AMS has its downsides. When considering adopting an AMS, you need to be aware that long-term planning is essential because you have less flexibility with this system, especially regarding expansion. A farm with a conventional parlor that is not running 24 hours per day can increase their milking herd by hiring more labor or increasing efficiency. On the other hand, the optimum number of 60 cows per robot can only be increased, in high-efficiency AMS systems, to up to 70 without compromising the milking frequency. The maintenance cost is also commonly pointed out as an issue, but the cost of $9,000/year as reported by Salfer and others needs to be compared with a conventional system that runs 24 hours a day.

It is important to say that there are some tasks that the robot will not perform better than a well-trained human milker, like cow prepping and dipping and accurate detection of clinical mastitis. The mastitis detection on AMS is currently based on sensors to monitor milk electrical conductivity, but only using electrical conductivity has been proved not to be effective. However, with the development of technology and the use of various sensors, milk quality management on AMS farms has been improving and high quality milk is being harvested. It is essential to emphasize that ensuring the cleanliness of the cows is essential to maintain the health of the udder, as in the conventional system. 

Automated milking systems have proven to be an efficient tool for milking cows. With rising costs of labor, investing in robots may provide an opportunity to manage labor costs more efficiently on the farm. However, the decision to transition to automated systems should be made carefully and reflect the needs and objectives of individual dairy farm operations. As with any other system, the best results are obtained with great effort and excellent management.

For additional information or if you are interested in discussing the adoption of an automated milking system, please do not hesitate to contact Michigan State University Extension Dairy Team personnel.

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