Every year robots have a hand in milking more of the nation's dairy cows, especially on family-farm sized dairies.

Every year robots have a hand in milking more of the nation’s dairy cows, especially on family-farm sized dairies.

Now that the firms that supply the technology have successfully adapted it to rotary-style parlors suited to the large mega-dairies that populate western states like Colorado and Idaho, its prevalence is likely to grow even more rapidly.

Robotic milking was among the exciting new advances on display at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, held in early October.

The technology, which uses 3D cameras, lasers and robotic arms to prep udders and attach milking cups, originated in and is most widely used in Europe and Canada, where herds are smaller and labor costs higher, said Marcia Endres, an animal science professor at the University of Minnesota, who gave an update on her research during the expo.

So far it’s still a niche seeing the most use in the Eastern U.S. and the Midwest where dairies are relatively small. Traditional box-style robotic milking stations priced at around $200,000 each can milk up to about 60 cows a day. But the technique is poised to take a big leap forward, now that a dairy in Western Wisconsin has broken ground on a 72-stall rotary-style robotic milking system that will be the largest of its kind in the world, with the capacity to milk 2,000 head three times daily.

As the technology evolves, Endres said increasing numbers of Western dairies are showing interest in adopting it for labor saving and lifestyle reasons. Another new frontier for robotic milking is integration with grass-based dairy systems, she added.

Her research working with farms in the Midwest shows that most dairymen who made the switch are satisfied, especially because it allows them to expand without hiring additional labor. It also allows dairies to take advantage of sophisticated sensors, which can detect changes in a cow’s metabolism, her breeding cycle and health status, and scan for early signs of mastitis.

The systems also reward higher producing cows with higher energy rations and adjust feed levels throughout each cow’s milk production cycle to improve output and feed efficiency.

In addition, the robots milk each quarter of the udder separately, with suction cups detaching automatically when a teat is empty. “It’s probably better for the cow in that respect,” Endres said.

Once trained to use the robots, cows housed in a free style format can choose when to be milked on their own. Another option is to erect an automatic guided system that uses electronic identification to sort cows on the basis of whether they are due to be milked or routes them to the bunk for feed instead.

But don’t get the wrong idea. Dairyman can’t just install the robots and walk away, Endres emphasized. “You are still going to be spending time with the cows, it’s just that your labor will be more flexible” in terms of allocation, she said.

For one thing, not all cows willingly go to the robot to be milked, so participating dairies monitor their herds for “fetch cows” that need to be coaxed to enter the stall. While feed costs are similar in conventional and robotic systems, the management of feed rations changes dramatically and requires special expertise, she said. Robotic systems are designed to give cows more concentrate during milking, which motivates them to come to the robot and maximizes output per machine.

Another issue is maintenance. It helps to be “handy” and budget prudently, since replacing just one laser costs around $14,000. The systems can also increase labor in other areas, such as monitoring and treating foot problems, she added.

The biggest challenge, however, just might be training the cows to use the robots, a process commonly referred to by dairymen as “three days of hell” followed by three months of purgatory, Endres joked. Every time new cows or heifers are introduced to the herd, more training is required.

Robots have so far proven most popular on farms that rely heavily on family labor, Endres said. In some cases, they are helping the dairy business attract a new generation that grew up immersed in gadgetry and electronics.

“Kids don’t want to come back to an old-style farm,” Endres said. “There’s lots of exciting technology that comes along with using a robotic system.”