DUBUQUE, Iowa - More cows milked, less labor needed, and milk production higher. Those are just three things that have changed on farms that use robotic milkers, or automatic milking systems (AMS).
Dairy farmers like their robotic milkers, according to a survey earlier this year of eight Iowa producers. Larry Tranel, an Iowa State University Extension dairy field specialist, discussed the survey at the recent Tri-State Ag Lenders' Seminar in Dubuque, Iowa.
Surveyed farmers reported an average of 12 percent more cows milked with the robots. And they milked their herds with an average of 75 percent less labor. At the same time, milk production rose 12 percent, while the somatic cell count (SCC) dropped an average of 36 percent.
"Feeding and housing efficiencies were gained, as well," Tranel said. "Automatic milking systems gave a very positive quality of life and milking labor advantage over producers' previous systems."
An improved quality of life was, in fact, the top reason the farmers gave for going to robots. They figured the machines would let them have more time for family events.
Their second reason for choosing robots was labor efficiency. They liked the idea of being able to do something else while the robots milked, and they liked the fact that they would not have to depend on employees. More-frequent milkings were also cited.
Third, the dairymen said they liked the robotic technology itself, and the abundant cow data that would be generated. Fourth, they compared milking systems, were going to build something anyway, and found that the costs were all similar.
Most of the robotic milking systems were fairly new at the time of the survey, with an average age of 8.25 months. Herds averaged 149 cows before the robots were installed, and 167 cows afterward.
As for cost, dairy farms spent an average of $185,000 for each robot. That figure does not include any building that might have been constructed. The robots were estimated to have useful lives of 13.75 years each, and a salvage value of $52,139.

The robots lessened the labor devoted to milking, and also cut by 70 percent the labor needed for heat detection. That's because the radio collars the cows wear let the computer system monitor their activity. More activity often means a cow is in heat.
But the farmers spent more time examining cow records - about 38 minutes each day. But that extra time was offset by spending 37 fewer minutes each day hiring, training, and managing employees.
"Overall," said Tranel, "labor efficiency was a tremendous savings, valued at $44,030 per year. Management labor increased minimally, by $212 per year."
As is to be expected, the amount of labor needed for milking dropped dramatically. After all, milking is what the robots do.
One number that jumps out from the survey results is the cows milked per hour. Before installing robots, it average 21.3 on the eight farms. After the robots took over, the number of cows milked per hour rocketed to 185.2.
"This is a 781 percent decrease in milking labor," said Tranel. "With the installation of an AMS, producers were able to reduce both the milking labor cost per cow and per hundredweight by 80 percent."
Robotics let farmers milk at an average labor cost of 35 cents per hundredweight. That's down sharply from the $1.93 per hundredweight before going to robots.
"On a per-cow basis, the daily labor cost was reduced from $1.34 to 27 cents per cow after installing an AMS," Tranel said. "For one robot and using a basis of 74 cows per robot, producers saw milking labor savings of $23,997 per year."

Farmers fit the robots into their operations three ways. Four of the eight farmers built new facilities for the machines. Others retrofitted AMS into existing freestall barns, and one converted a stanchion barn.

It's important to manage the feeding system correctly if robotic milkers are going to work well.
"Properly balancing the ration between the partial mixed ration and the pellets (that a cow receives when she is being milked) drives the success of cow visits to the AMS. Providing fresh, timely, high-quality forage in the bunk contributes to the success of the AMS, too," Tranel said.
The pellets the cows got at the robot typically contain corn, along with a variety of by-products, like linseed, wheat midds, molasses, soybeans, oats and dried distillers' grains. These pellets cost an average of 13 cents a pound, and the average maximum fed was 14.5 pounds per day.
With pellets being fed, it took 8.8 percent less dry matter in the partial mixed ration to produce a pound of milk. Farmers reported a cost for the partial mixed ration that ranged from eight to 12 cents per pound.

While lower costs and higher production are key indicators of robots' value, farmers' satisfaction with the machines is important, too. All of the farmers agreed that the robots were a good personal, financial and management investment, Tranel said.
All the farmers also said the robots improved their operations' cash flows and profitability. And, all of them said the robotic milkers improved their quality of life. They were asked to place a number on that improvement, and it averaged $22,500 per year.

Robotic milkers cost some money up front. With their useful lives estimated at 15 years, the annual cost came to $336.04 per cow, or $1.42 per hundredweight of milk produced.