ROCHESTER, Minn. – Robots have been a popular choice for upgrading milking systems in the past few years; however, dairy producers are not the only ones who have to be familiar with them on the farm.
    Farmers, inspectors, processor field representatives and others working in the industry gathered April 17 for the Upper Midwest Dairy Industry Association and Iowa Association for Food Protection spring meeting in Rochester, Minn.
    A panel about the Automated Milking Systems company and regulatory updates included Brad Cupery, production specialist for Lely; Julie Whitmer, dairy solutions specialist for Boumatic; Chris Horton, AMS system specialist for DeLaval; and Steve Pretz, director of large production sales for GEA.
    They first responded to a question about how to troubleshoot a somatic cell count issue or how to deal with robots and a contagious infection.
    “We want to go through standard protocol to try to reduce the somatic cell count, whatever bug it is before we get into the robots. Robots are not going to be the cure,” Cupery said.
    When it comes to a contagious infection, he said the robot is disinfected between each milking. Other areas of the farm also need to be managed to eliminate the bacteria. Cupery said his company employees are trained in these issues and have a check list to follow to help diagnose the issue.
    Whitmer echoed those statements.
    “If you get robots, you’re going to deal with the same issues you do in a milking parlor. You don’t want to stop managing your facility and your cows like you would in a parlor,” she said.
    Making sure the chemical line is cleaning and sanitizing properly is important along with getting a culture to figure out which cows are infected and shedding, Whitmer said. Her company also has a milk quality team to help with these type of problem areas.
    “I highly encourage a special needs group. You do have options for sorting them [with the robot],” Whitmer said.
    Horton said one benefit of robots is robot facilities generally have smaller pens, which gives more options for segregating cows and keeping an infection from spreading throughout the herd.
    “You’re not putting 500 cows through one parlor. You have more capabilities for isolation with robots,” he said.
    Horton also said troubleshooting a somatic cell count issue is the same on every farm.
    “Do the exact same things you do on a conventional farm. Is my cleaning correct? Are my procedures correct on the farm?” he said. “You want to look at the farm systematically to determine where the problems are and how to resolve them.”
    Pretz said more than likely it is the cleaning process and environmental factors. The change to robots can be different.
    “It’s a considerable challenge because primarily with environmental [factors] … it mitigates to mattresses. There are cows in the pens all the time. It’s difficult to groom the stalls and difficult to add more materials because you always have cows in there,” he said.
    Pretz answered the next question specifically about his brand on how the robot protects the milk supply with the washing and dipping of each teat within the line of the milker.
    “That was a hard journey to get that process approved in the United States. That’s why when you look at our machine, the block process … is so important. We’re basically putting the same protection we’re putting in one of our processing plants,” Pretz said.
    One person asked about the quality of milk as dairy farms get larger and the distance to the bulk tank becomes greater. All the companies were in agreement for their answer. They have not seen any issues.
    “We’re not seeing any differences than what we see on the conventional side,” Cupery said. “As long as the design is used correctly, we’re using the correct chemical concentration, times and heat … everything stays in the good range.
    Whitmer said her company tries to keep robots centrally located, which helps for both milk and cow flow.
    Another question was asked about robots and their approval by the Food and Drug Administration.
    “From our standpoint, we have what we refer to as a letter of nonobjection from the FDA. We think that’s as good as it’s going to get. There will never be approval in my working lifetime, in my opinion. It’s been a long time since the last piece of milking equipment was approved,” Pretz said.
    Horton’s company is similar. He said there is more regulation at the state level.
    Cupery and Whitmer also said their companies work closely with individual states to comply and communicate how the robots work.
    The last two questions asked each company representative to share thoughts about the repair aspect of robots.
    “It’s like any piece of equipment out there. You could have two Chevy trucks sitting side by side and the repair costs could be vastly different. So, you’ll see it farm to farm,” Cupery said.  
    The biggest aspect all four shared was that the robots need regular maintenance.
    “How is it being taken care of day to day? If someone does not pay attention to a piece of equipment until it breaks, it’s going to break more often. If someone does daily maintenance, it’s not only going to last longer, it will give them a lot less grief. I always go back to you’ve got to take care of your equipment and it will be good to you,” Cupery said.
    Whitmer said her company makes a list to make sure maintenance is being done regularly to keep repair costs down.
    “We have a double box with one arm so there are less moving parts, which also helps keep the cost down,” she said.
    For Horton’s company, maintenance used to be optional. Now, the first four years of maintenance cost is built into the initial price.
    “The idea is after the first four years, the farmer realizes I’ve had all this trouble free service because it’s being done preemptively. … As manufacturers, we didn’t preach enough from the pulpit [in earlier years] about why they needed to do the maintenance ahead of time,” Horton said.
    Pretz said while robots cut down on labor cost, a portion of that money will go into keeping the robots functioning.
    “The maintenance is just paying for labor in a different way,” Pretz said. “Mandate the maintenance as part of the finance package in the beginning, and you’ll have a much happier customer at the end of the day.”
    All four agreed it is important for the industry to continue to attract and retain quality employees who know how to work on this high-tech equipment.
    “We are seeing a labor gap in the skill traits. All our dealerships are. We can’t keep selling if we don’t have people there. The labor rates have to go up,” Cupery said.
    The competition – telecommunications and farm machinery – is doing a better job recruiting technicians, the panel said.
    “The farm machinery industry is growing their own, and that’s what we need to do in the dairy industry. We need to recruit our own rural talent, and we need to start when they’re in high school. We can’t just wait for them to roll out of the universities because there are not enough graduates from our land grant colleges to fill the job needs in agriculture right now,” Horton said. “We need to be proactive.”