September 5, 2017 at 3:32 p.m.

Digging deeper into automated milking systems

Salfer gives presentation on preliminary robotic research at MDE

By by Missy Mussman- | Comments: 0 | Leave a comment

ST. CLOUD, Minn. - Automated milking systems are some of the latest technologies for dairy producers to use on their farms. With the new technology growing in popularity, Jim Salfer visited 52 dairy farms using precision technology to learn more about it.
"Our goal is to help farmers design a system that is best for them," Salfer said.
Salfer presented his preliminary findings during the "Research on Midwest Robots" breakout session on Dec. 4 at the Midwest Dairy Expo in St. Cloud, Minn.
Over the summer, Salfer visited 52 single box robotic milking farms and gathered data on many aspects of the operations.
"We measured almost everything," Salfer said. "It takes a long time to organize the data, but it is fascinating when you look at it."
One thing Salfer and his team looked at were the layout and design of the facilities. Out of the 52 dairies, 42 percent were retrofitted old barns, 58 percent were new facilities and five percent were organic farms.
"Some of the retrofitted barns were well designed," Salfer said.
The layouts varied widely between each of the dairies, including the area in front of the robots, which is measured from the robot to the nearest obstacle.
"That initial question we had was how big does the area in front of the robot need to be," Salfer said. "The recommendation is 20 feet."
With the preliminary measurements they took, Salfer saw anywhere between eight to 20 feet of space.
"We don't know what we will find for the optimum space. It could change as we continue to look at the data," Salfer said
The exit lane measurements had a minimum of zero feet with the average at 10 feet, and the feed bunk space measured between 12 to 42 inches with the average being 20 inches.
"The feed bunk space of 42 inches was for a special needs group at one of the farms," Salfer said.
While observing the automated milking system facilities, Salfer also saw most of the farms using finger gates.
"It seemed to be fairly consistent," Salfer said. "If they didn't have them, they were looking at switching to them. With saloon gates, cows can only go through one at a time and we have seen them go in backwards as well."
Salfer was also interested in seeing which flow systems were most commonly used on each of the farms.
He found 76 percent used a free flow system, 24 percent used a guided flow system. Of those farms using a guided flow system, 69 percent used a milk first flow system and 31 percent used a feed first flow system.
With the feed first flow system, producers feed less grain in the robot and push more energy in the bunk. Also with this system, Salfer noticed cows would eat till they were full, go through the gates and stand chewing their cud. This prohibited other cows to get through the gates to be milked.
"We don't have many farms using this system, but farmers have seen this as well," Salfer said. "The milk first system seems to work more efficiently."
Salfer also noticed challenges with boss cows making it more difficult for a submissive cow to get into the robot.
"My suggestion is to have a dual entrance," Salfer said. "That way there is an alternative way for that cow to get into the robot. They are not hard to design and are not expensive."
Farmers also need to look at the number of robots they will need for their herd.
"A key is balancing the number of cows per robot with the number of milkings per cow per day," Salfer said. "Increasing the number of cows per robot will decrease milkings per cow per day. The optimum will vary from farm to farm depending on farm goals and management. Each herd will need to determine their own optimum number of milkings per cow per day."
Besides the layout of the facility, Salfer looked at the welfare of the cows through locomotion, hygiene and hock lesion scores. What he found in the preliminary data was not that different from any other study.
The number of cows that were lame on mattresses was still higher than on sand. However, he did notice the percent of cows lame were slightly higher in the robotic farms than in a regular freestall.
"I think this boils down to figuring out where to put the footbath," Salfer said.
One third of the farms didn't run the cows through one and the others ran them through the footbaths periodically.
"We are not sure of an answer yet, but cows like consistency," Salfer said. "If you want to have them use the footbath sporadically, put water in the footbath on the off days. However, they have to be cleaned twice a day."
Salfer found the reason farmers look at installing robots on their farms is to improve labor management, their lifestyle, their personal health and because it is the latest technology. However, some farmers are hesitant to work with them due to the expense.
"It is expensive, but compared to what," Salfer said.
Farmers have the ability to catch more cows in heat, which could give a positive value to the software system. They can also decrease expenses by decreasing labor. However, the maintenance costs will be higher and the years of useful life is sensitive with the robots as well.
"It is a decision in trading of capital investments," Salfer said.
Salfer cautioned producers looking at using automated milking systems in order to only get more milk and decrease labor.
"They may give you three to six more pounds per cow, but the robots themselves will not get you more milk," Salfer said. "And farmers with only the goal of saving labor might be disappointed."
Salfer believes that farmers who will see the most success are the ones who pay attention to detail and work hard at managing their cows.
"The best quote I heard was from Doug Kastenschmidt of Ripon, Wis. He said, 'Management makes milk - robots only harvest it'," Salfer said. "Farmers still have to manage their cows."[[In-content Ad]]


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