Robotic milking technology: Technology, farm design, and effects on workflow

With the capacity to milk up to 250 cows, robotic milking minimises the labour intensiveness of dairy farms of all sizes and provides farm families with a more flexible lifestyle. Since milking is voluntary, the frequency of milking can be improved with barn layouts that promote low-stress access by offering enough open space close to the milking stations and escape paths for waiting cows, this also helps to reduce fetching. Considering that lame cows attend less frequently, using comfortable stalls, effective foot bathing, and clean alley floors to prevent lameness puts more focus on robotic diaries. Varying milking intervals present numerous challenges for bathing, sorting and handling, and catering to special-needs cows. Separation options at the milking stations and suitable cow routine are necessary to effectively handle these challenges and also make sure that the expected labour savings are achieved. Protocols, gating and layouts allow herd workers to attend to all handling tasks on their own. A free traffic and guided traffic system produce the same results when proper management is in place or when the number of cows stays below capacity. In situations that are less than ideal, guided traffic and the utilisation of commitment pens lead to longer standing times and increased traffic, this is especially so for lower-ranking cows. In addition, poor management combined with free traffic causes increased labour demand for fetching. Automatic milking is increasingly becoming popular, especially in western Europe. It has become widely accepted as a way of reducing labour on dairy farms, improving production per cow, and enhancing the lifestyle of dairy farm families that milk 40 to 250 cows.

The wide acceptance of this technology is apparent in the rate at which it is being adopted. The number of robotic farms globally was estimated to be 8,000 in 2009. However, in just 6 years, Barkema et al. reported that the number had risen to over 25,000 dairy farms globally, which is more than triple the initial number. Two quality reviews have been published summarising the effects robotic milking system has had on udder health and on cow health, behaviour, welfare, and management. But there isn’t enough research information available on many aspects of this technology, especially when it comes to the design of robotic milking barns. Considering that the studies on this field are still inconclusive, practical experience from commercial robotic dairy farms showcased here might be beneficial in identifying research priorities.

20% Labour savings on average

A study involving 107 robotic milking farms in Germany, Belgium, Denmark, and the Netherlands indicated 20% labour savings on average, with a great variation from farm to farm. One of the latest labour demands in automatic systems is fetching cows that don’t voluntarily attend. Fetching 1 to 2 cows per single robot needs the least amount of effort and, in barns using logical cow routing and gating, it can be applied together with cleaning the free stalls. The average milking frequency per cow is a measure for the success of robotic milking being closely monitored by owners. The average milking frequency normally ranges from 2.2 to 3.2. However, since this involves an extensive range of results from individual cows, it doesn’t compare with 2x or 3x fixed-interval milking.

Ever since 2010, expanding operations became increasingly difficult due to quota policies in eastern Canada. In addition, an increasing number of automatic dairy farms have a reduced number of cows/milking stalls. Cows that have a higher milking speed will allow a greater number of cows and more milk production per robot at a similar occupation rate. Tremblay et al. reported in 2016 that an average box time of 6.84 min per milking on 2.91 milkings per cow, and 50.5 cows per robot or 147 killings per day.

Crucial factor to consider

The selection between free traffic and guided traffic has a great impact on both labour efficiency and the comfort of the cow and it is a crucial factor to consider in the design of an automatic milking system (AMS) facilities. The commitment pen as discussed earlier is a gated place beside or ahead of the robots that cows can’t leave until they have been milked. The commitment pen can only be accessed through a one-way gate or a preselection gate. According to some older studies, milking at a higher frequency but fewer visits to the manger and reduced resting time with guided traffic. As measured by blood cortisol levels, heart rate, and kicking and stepping during milking, stress responses have been meticulously researched. In comparison, free traffic and milk-first guided traffic systems, cows were fed a partially mixed ratio reaching 3 kg of concentrate in a VMS milking stall.