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Is Robotic Milking a Viable Option?

Posted: September 4, 2004

A systematic comparison of the benefits of robotic milking systems and new traditional milking systems.

If you are in the market for a new milking system, you may be wondering if you should consider a robotic (automatic) milking system over a traditional parlor system. Is it a practical management strategy? How does it affect other aspects of the farm? Most importantly, can robotic milking provide an economic return? With these questions in mind, we systematically compared the benefits of robotic milking systems and new traditional milking systems using a whole-farm approach. Our objective was to compare long-term farm performance and profitability using these milking systems on farm sizes of 30 to 270 cows with moderate and high producing herds to determine where robotic milking might provide the greatest benefit.

Why consider robotic miking? Robotic milking technology is now well developed for use on dairy farms. In Europe, at least 1000 farms are using robotic milking, and a number of units are operating on Canadian and US farms.

There are several potential advantages to robotic milking. Robotic systems offer the dairy producer relief from the labor-intensive milking routine. This decreased labor use can reduce production costs for hired labor or provide the producer more time for farm management, family, and recreation. Another benefit is increased milk production. Robotic milking can allow more than two milkings per day, which should allow cows to produce more milk. Studies have shown 3 to 11% more milk using a robotic system. Other possible benefits include better health and welfare for the cows.

There are, however, some potential drawbacks to robotic milking. For one, the initial investment can be three times greater than that for a traditional system and robotic equipment may not last as many years. Another consideration is a decrease in milk quality due to lower milk solids or higher bacteria counts, which can result in a small decrease in milk price.

Milking systems were compared using a computer simulation model that integrated all the aspects of a dairy farm. The long-term performance and economics of farms using various traditional and robotic milking systems were evaluated. Factors such as the effect on milk production, milk quality, and feed use were considered along with their interaction on crop production, feed storage, feeding, and manure handling processes.

Our traditional milking systems used a flat parlor or stall barn for less than 60 cows, a double six parlor for 60 to 100 cows, a double eight for 110 to 190 cows, and a double ten for 200 to 270 cows.

Most robotic systems available in North America use a single-stall design where one robot services each milking stall. Multiple-stall designs have also been used where one robot moves on a track to serve up to four milking stalls. This reduces the initial investment, but thus far, reliability has been a major problem for this design. If the robot serving multiple stalls malfunctions, none of the stalls has service. With more than one single-stall unit, one robot can malfunction while additional stalls continue to work. Unsatisfactory performance of the multiple-stall system has reduced sales and deterred further development.

The simulator illustrated that robotic milking systems appear most feasible for smaller dairy farms, like those commonly found in the Northeastern and upper Midwestern states. While well-managed traditional systems normally provided the greatest economic return for all farm sizes, robotic systems were competitive on farms of 50-130 cows, with the best results coming from a single-stall unit on a 60-cow farm (see Figure 1). The milk production potential of the herd did not have much effect, but there was slightly less economic benefit for robotic milking with higher producing herds.

If the current problems associated with multiple-stall robotic systems can be resolved, this approach shows potential economic benefit, particularly for farm sizes between 60 and 130 cows (see Figure 1). A lower cost for additional milking stalls allows intermediate increases in milking system size. With a single-stall design, the addition of a second unit forces the farm to increase to about 120 cows for efficient and economical use of the robotic system.

Chart: Robot Milking

Figure 1
. Annual net return to management
(profit) for farm sizes of 30 to 270 cows using
traditional and robotic milking systems. Traditional
systems represent a range in initial cost where the
higher cost technology (lower portion of grey band)
provides recorded production information similar to
that obtained from robotic milking systems.

Once the farm size exceeds 130 cows, the economic difference between traditional and robotic systems tends to increase with increasing farm size (see Figure 1). Large parlors on large farms are more labor efficient, so the labor saving with a robotic system is less. With less saving in labor cost, the depreciation of the high-cost equipment is difficult to justify.

As the development of robotic milking technology continues, the initial equipment cost will likely decrease. A 20% decrease in the current initial cost will reduce annual production costs and increase farm profit by about $100 per cow. This change will allow robotic milking to be more competitive with traditional systems, but a reduction in annual costs of $200 per cow or more is needed to allow this technology to be competitive with traditional systems across all farm sizes (see Figure 1).

Non-economic issues may influence your decision to adopt robotic milking. Farm owners looking for relief from the milking routine, or who are interested in electronic technology, may find robotic milking to be an intriguing option. Keep in mind, however, adoption of robotic milking will always require some shift in the way labor is used. Routine chore labor will be replaced with labor for equipment and animal management. This shift will be welcomed by some. For others, being on call at all times to respond to a system malfunction would not be desirable.

It is difficult to quantify the health benefits robotic milking might bring for cows. With robotic milking, cows set their own milking schedule, which should better fit a natural pattern of more frequent milking. In a well-managed robotic system, farmers note less stress among cows and fewer hierarchical battles within the herd. More frequent milking will allow less stress on the udder, particularly in early lactation. Less udder pressure and stress on ligaments provides more comfort for the animal, especially when lying. More frequent milking may also reduce the time for the growth of mastitis organisms. However, more frequent milking and longer total daily milking time may cause more stress on teats. This could lead to an increased number of teat end erosions and eruptions.

In the final analysis, does it make sense to opt for robotic milking? It really depends upon your wishes. For the most part, robotic technology is still too expensive to compete with our traditional parlor systems. However, on smaller dairy farms (about 60 or 120 cows) robotic milking might be a viable option, especially when non-economic factors are considered. The decision really comes down to the interest of the farm owner or manager. If you need a new milking system and you like to work with computers, robotic milking is worth considering.

Alan Rotz and Kathy Soder, USDA / Agricultural Research Service.
and Sean Riley, Penn State University.