The last decade of the dairy industry has been characterized by a steadily increasing trend in the shift towards automated milking units. Robotic milking machines, also known as automatic milking systems (AMS) or voluntary milking systems (VMS), have been commercially available since the 1990’s but have only begun to gain popularity in recent years with the rising decline in affordable, quality labor. The emergence of COVID-19 was a key influencer in accelerating the industry’s shift to milking/feeding robots as labor shortages spiked and the demand for milk products remained. We’re now beginning to see many farmers make the switch either partially or completely to automated milking machines for their potential to reduce labor and the costs associated, increase overall efficiency, mitigate risks to employees, reduce redundant tasks, and improve the overall animal welfare their farm.

An AMS differs from a conventional parlor system in that it allows cows to choose when they want to enter it to be milked and can perform the milking without the need for a human presence. Lasers identify the positions of the teats and tell the robot’s arm where to apply pre/post sanitization dips and attach the vacuum tubes. As the cow is milked, information is gathered and recorded so that farmers have the capability to track progress on individual cows even while managing them as a herd. The unit reads an identification tag on the cow and knows whether she has been recently/sufficiently milked so that she can be released from the gate if further milking is not required. In a conventional parlor, cows must be routinely fetched from free-stalls and herded into the parlor where they are manually stripped, dipped, and milked. The process is extremely repetitive and laborious, not to mention risky at times, and leaves a lot of room for human error. Finding individuals who are qualified to perform such work is becoming more difficult and more expensive than ever.

Labor charges, on top of milk production, are a major influencer of milk prices. “In the past, labor was relatively cheap compared to technology,” said Josh Ruiz, vice president of agricultural operations at Church Brothers Farms. “Today the cost of labor has risen – so, technology and labor costs are getting much closer.” Milking labor can occupy 40-50% of labor costs, and total labor falls around 20-30% of total dairy expenses. One study involving the implementation of an automatic milking system found that there was a 75% decrease in total milking labor associated with its installation (1). Although there were increased expenses related to initial installation of the AMS, robot repair, insurance, and increased feed costs (cows tend to consume more when milked with an AMS), the financial benefits of the system’s implementation included increased milk production, increased milk premiums, and reduced labor costs related to milking/estrus detection/management.

Productivity and profitability aside, animal welfare is another major reason why many farmers are introducing AMS into their facilities. Any farmer knows that the backbone of a successful dairy operation is a happy and healthy herd. By allowing cows to choose when they want to enter to be milked, the AMS allow for more individual freedom, less stress on low-ranking cows, reduced instances of lameness as a result of more rest time, and lower mastitis rates due to minimal stress and more frequent milking. Andre van Troost, CEO of Lely, expressed his thoughts on this in an interview with Dairy Global: “I see automation contributing in a big way to welfare. For example – with the free cow traffic principle, we know for a fact that those cows are happier, feel less stress, give more milk and tend to be healthier. The consumer will become much more discerning in terms of animal welfare. Also, traceability is a major point: consumers ask where does my milk come from? Which farm does it come from, and is that a sustainable operation? Are animal health and welfare standards a top priority there? Therefore, every product that we develop at Lely has the cow’s welfare in mind.” Several researchers have compared the welfare of herds in an AMS and in conventional parlor systems and found evidence that supports his claim. Hopster and his colleagues reported that cows milked in an AMS had lower heart rates and lower maximum plasma adrenaline and noradrenaline concentrations, which suggest lower stress levels during milking (2). Researchers have also shown an increase in milking production of 2-12% in cows milked 2+ times per day in an AMS compared to those milking twice per day in a conventional parlor, and this can likely be linked to the reduced levels of stress in those cows (3).

There are certainly disadvantages to consider as well. Management plays a key role in the success or failure of the AMS. Cows have to be conditioned and trained to use the system, which can be time consuming and difficult, especially if you have a herd that is already well accustomed to a conventional parlor. Cows are creatures of habit and thrive on predictability, which is inevitably disrupted by the introduction of a new system. These machines also bring in a lot of data – automated measurements of estrus, abnormal milk, mastitis, rations, lactation cycles, etc. – and that data can be misinterpreted, especially since the cows are not always being manually milked and observed. Some cows possess anatomical abnormalities that make attachment of the robotic milking machine difficult, such as undesirable teat position or udder quarter size, which may require physical labor for some cows to be properly milked. Physical labor is also required in the event that a cow does not voluntarily go into the AMS and has to be fetched. “Keys to success are high visits for cows in early lactation, balanced diets, high reproduction, excellent cow comfort and low somatic cell count. Labor cost and availability are going to continue to be problems,” explained Dr. James Salfer of the University of Minnesota Extension. Dr. Salfer noted that hybrid milking systems – ones where producers build a new robot barn but also continue to milk in their parlor – will likely become more and more common. Hybrid systems can be incredibly efficient and offer the advantage of choosing which cows are milked in which manner to ensure that they are all getting sufficient attention.  This way, manual labor is shifted to focus on the cows that need it while the AMS takes care of the rest, allowing for more to get done on the farm during the day.

While the pandemic is now winding down, the cost of labor remains high. This poses the question of what automation will continue to look like as individuals seek to re-enter the workforce – will it remain as-is for now, or continue to establish itself more and more? Will fully automated farms consider implementing a hybrid system, or continue down the path they’re on? While this remains uncertain, what we do know is that 2020 had a lasting impact on the dairy industry and new technologies will likely assert themselves soon to compete with those already in place.

-Written by Katie Ball: Researcher for Animal Health Recruiters

Works Cited

  1. Tranel. Economics of Robotic Milking Systems. USDA (2017), pp. 7-9
  2. Hopster et al., 2002. H. Hopster, R.M. Bruckmaier, J.T.N. Van der Werf, S.M. Korte, J. Macuhova, G. Korte-Bouws, C.G. van Reenen. Stress responses during milking: Comparing conventional and automatic milking in primiparous dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci., 85 (2002), pp. 3206-3216
  3. A. Jacobs, J.M. Siegford. Invited review: The impact of automatic milking systems on dairy cow management, behavior, health, and welfare. J. Dairy Sci., 95 Issue 5 (2012), pp. 2227-224