Pros And Cons Of Robotic Milkers

What many young kids dreamed of when they were sent to the barn to milk cows has come true. With the robotic Voluntary Milking System (VMS) cows really do milk themselves. Robotic milkers, as many call them, are being seen on more dairy farms. Neil Boelman of Yoke Farm Ltd. near Westlock, Alberta (north of Edmonton) is one of those to install the system.

Boelmans installed two robotic milkers into their existing barn in 2008. Boelman says he watched a nearby farm install the system into their older barn, and thought, If they can do it, we can too. He s never regretted the decision.

He loves the quick information and the reliable help. He says the cows are healthier and happier, and believes that eventually the system pays for itself.

The technology that s coming on stream is mind boggling, Boelman says. We re constantly upgrading. Soon sampling will be able to detect hormone levels. A farmer will know two days prior that a cow is coming in heat. It will take lactose measurements, and tell you a cow is sick before she is. Farmers can get information early; respond quicker. These new technologies will be available in 2012 for robots.

Getting a good herdsperson is a headache for many dairy farmers. I think it (VMS )does a better job than 98 per cent of the milkers out there would do, and more efficiently, Boelman says. It doesn t have an attitude, it doesn t get drunk, and it doesn t sleep in. It s reliable. The VMW can help take the headache away.

QUIET COWS

Like many other farmers using the VMS, Boelman says the vet often comments on how calm his cows are. Cows are often less stressed than when milked using traditional methods. They can come in to milk as often as they like, and take the time they need. The cows are getting fed at an interval basis, including concentrate, throughout the day, so they always have enough energy. Boelman says he uses fewer antibiotics since he has the robots. He thinks it s a combination of less stress and also better udder health. The robot is a very consistent milker.

As long as you have good conformation udders, it does a great job, Boelman says. Sometimes it will milk a cow that is starting to dry up or the teat placement isn t 100 per cent. But if it doesn t get the milk in the one milking, it will get it next time.

Boelman thinks the system makes economic sense. Reliable help is hard to get, he says. With the amount you have to pay to attract people to come, it will pay pretty quickly to have a robot do it.

Boelmans milk 100 cows, which go through the robots an average 2.8 times per day. Boelman says the robots should be able to milk up to 115 cows, but their existing barn isn t quite big enough. If he pushes the number to 110, the cows begin to produce less. Especially the weaker cows need space to wait until a robot is free. Cows don t go to pasture during lactation. Boelman says they give more milk that way.

Service availability was the prime reason to choose a DeLaval system, he says. Lely is another provider, but is only serviced in Red Deer and central Alberta. DeLaval is from Edmonton and has a technician in Fort Saskatchewan. Having quick access to a technician is imperative when working with the VMS. Often things can be solved on the phone, but sometimes they do have to come out.

ANOTHER OPINION

Robotic milkers aren t for everyone. Bill Feenstra, of Didsbury, Alberta (just north of Calgary) built a new barn a few years ago and decided against the VMS. He cited stable family labour, limited expansion capability of VMS, and inadequate troubleshooting capacity as major factors in the decision.

There s usually more than one factor that will make you go one way or the other, says Feenstra. Is your labour stable? We have family labour and they don t mind milking. His daughter Leah is his right-hand girl for the cows, with his son helping out sometimes on days off. They use a contract milker for their days off, weekends and holidays. As on the Yoke Farm, the vet often comments on how calm the cows are. I think it helps that our family labour is very calm, Feenstra says.

The Feenstra farm has been in growth mode for the last 10 years and now milks 100 cows. Expansion can be problematic with a robot. Robots have a limited enough to be able to troubleshooting adequately. (Boelman also cautions farmers that are far from a service technician to think twice about a VMS, or to make sure they have extra parts on hand.)

Feenstras decided for a Westfalia side-by-side, double 10 milking parlour. They milk twice a day. The office is located next to the tank room, complete with flat screen

capacity, and when you hit the capacity, you need another robot, Feenstra says. If you have to put in a robot for $250,000 and you milk 10 more cows, you re way over. In the parlour, it s just another 15 minutes.

Troubleshooting skills and capacity are important, Feenstra thinks. If there s a problem, can you follow the dots to find the problem or do you have to pick up the phone? he asks. I m on the road a lot. He says he s not home computer that gives Feenstra all the information he needs. The cows wear transponder collars that tell him when they are in heat. He uses a webcam to monitor calving, and it can also watch sick cows and calves. Through the Internet he can access his latest milk quality report from anywhere in the world. Feenstra admits that the VMS delivers more information than his system can, but a farmer also must use that information. Not everyone does.

The technology is really improved, Feenstra says. I think if I was building again, I d have to have another look at it. But I don t know if I would do it.

Price wasn t an issue with Feenstra. He had to build a bigger barn to accommodate the milking parlour. When building new, he feels the price is probably about the same whether or not a farmer chooses the VMS.

Feenstra has a word of caution for farmers who don t like being in the barn. The robot is not supposed to get you out of the barn, he says. It s just a different kind of management style. But you still need to be in the barn to manage it well.

Boelman agree. If you just want to save time because you don t want to milk anymore, then you might get a rotary parlour that might work better for you, he says. Whatever system a farmer decides to use, they still need to be there regularly, several times a day. Boelman goes through the barn four times a day, checking the computer for cows that need attention, feeding, and watching. But as the folks at Delaval say ( http://en.delaval.ca/Products/AutomaticMilking/DeLaval-VMS) , a robot gives you more freedom to decide how and when you will spend that time in the barn. But again, that s a lifestyle choice.

MarianneStammisafreelancefarmwriter fromJarvie,Alberta.Contactherbyemailat: [email protected]

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It can take quite a bit of beating, it just keeps humming along. As long as you keep on top of your maintaenance and your technicians are well educated it should last a long time

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