New style, new life

The desire for a lifestyle change was the deciding factor in the switch to a robotic milker.

By Susan Harlow

Michigan dairy producer Alan Simons was putting away his lawn furniture last December when he decided to buy a robotic milking system.

“I said, ‘I don’t even remember sitting on the lawn furniture this summer.’ That’s when I made the commitment,” he said.

Alan Simons installed a robotic milker on his Michgan dairy earlier this year.

Alan Simons installed a robotic milker on his Michgan dairy earlier this year.

Simons had just moved his cows into a new 64-stall freestall barn, milking in a double-4 parlor. “I was sold on a robot, but didn’t know if I wanted to do it right then.” He did, and he’s glad.

Simons, who milks cows on the China, Mich. dairy he owns with his wife, Melissa, said the Lely A3 Astronaut robot changed his life for the better. It’s no small benefit that he has more time to spend with his two small children.

He was milking 70 head in his parlor. To prepare for the robotic system in March, he dried off a majority of cows a bit earlier than normal to bring the number closer to 55 at start-up. He’s now back to milking 65 head, about the optimum number for his single-unit robot, based on the number of visits per cow. “Some may visit two and other may visit six times,” he said. “It’s a matter of balancing the total number of visits, number of cows and milk production.”

The system is saving him about four hours a day in labor.

“It’s a different kind of management, sitting at the computer,” Simons said. “It’s more management, but I enjoy being in the barn.”

Moving the herd into the new setup was fairly easy. “I didn’t have to cull any cows because the robot wouldn’t milk them,” he said. “I haven’t had one where it wouldn’t milk a cow.”

The key is to have a lot of help when you start, Simons said. He and three workers spent a week to 10 days constantly pushing cows into the robotic milker, a chore that took 15 minutes for each cow. “After three days, the worst part was over,” he said. “Then after three or four weeks, another light bulb went on. Now, 90% of cows go in on their own.”

Simons checks any cow on his computer list that has gone 10 hours without milking. Twice a day, he’ll fetch 4 or 5 cows. Those with problems going into the robot now usually have sore feet or are late in lactation and lazy, he said. He’s had to cull only one cow for teat difficulties.

Simons spends more time on management, much of it on his computer.

Simons spends more time on management, much of it on his computer.

The setup

To keep the system from freezing in the Michigan winter, Simons installed radiant floor heat under and in front of the robot area. The freestall and milking system is set up for free-choice traffic flow for a single group, and cows don’t have to pass through the robot to get to feed. They’re fed a partial mixed ration (PMR) in the bunk, balanced for 15 lbs. under the average milk per cow, then supplemented with grain in the robot.

“With a herd of this size, it would be hard to split it into groups for feeding and for milking 3X or 6X,” Simons said. “But the robot will adjust feed and milking schedule for each cow. They have to earn the feed to get it. High producers are getting what they need and the low producers aren’t getting overfed.”

Simons began turning the herd out on pasture this summer. “Thus far it has been working well,” he said. “The daily milkings are still on average, and the cows are still producing well,” he said. Cows average 2.6 to 2.7 visits per day, with an average milk production of 70 lbs., about 5 lbs. more than in the parlor.

Simons’ robotic milker uses electrical conductivity to monitor milk quality in each quarter. Abnormal milk is sorted into holding buckets and not mixed into the tank.

Simons would like see his SCC lower. “We just started sampling the cows individually to really get a grasp on what is going on, and it is helping lower the number,” he said.

Simons also makes it clear that the robot is not a “hands-off” system. “You must maintain the robot on a daily, weekly and monthly schedule,” he said. That includes overseeing its daily operation, feeding and observing the herd and analyzing the data generated by the robot.

“All and all it may be more management, but at a different level, and a more flexible schedule,” he said.

Simons expects the robotic system to pay for itself in five to eight years. He plans to add another barn, another 60 cows and another robot.

“The biggest thing to me is the freedom,” he said. “I was just in the barn so much, and this changed my life. It’s a night and day difference.”

Will a robot cash flow?

Will a robotic milker cash flow for your dairy? Look at how robots can offset the cost of labor, said Tom Anderson, farm business management educator at Riverland Community College, Plainview, Minn.
Anderson consults on accounting systems for about a half-dozen Minnesota dairies with robotic milkers. He calculates a single robotic unit, at an estimated price of $170,000, costs about $80-$85/day in principal and interest payments, or around $30,000 annually (with a maintenance plan). It should harvest about 4,700 lbs. of milk daily, or 1.7 million lbs. annually. Compare that to a full-time worker on a typical dairy, who averages 1.1 million lbs. of milk.

“Every farm is different, but you’re getting more milk with a robot than a full-time equivalent (FTE) employee,” Anderson said. “So the robot is producing more than a FTE employee.”

Labor costs, based on Minnesota statistics and including family draw, run $2.75-$2.80/cwt. Anderson puts robot operating costs at $1.80-$2/cwt., leaving 80¢-$1/cwt. to cover additional labor. “You need some labor with a robot – you can’t just walk away,” he said.

A single robotic unit should harvest more milk than a typical full-time equivalent employee.

A single robotic unit should harvest more milk than a typical full-time equivalent employee.

Cash flow, debt load

The purchase of the first robot unit is most difficult to cash flow. “Usually, you’re buying a robot for a 55- to 60-cow dairy, and that’s usually a one-man show, so you’re not saving a lot of labor,” he said. “The robot has to generate other savings.”

Deciding whether to purchase or to lease a robot? Many farmers may not need the tax write-off from a lease, so a purchase is probably preferable.

“But the issue is debt load,” Anderson said, noting it will be a little high compared to a dairy without a robot. A typical recommended total debt load for a dairy should be no higher than $20/cwt. But labor savings generated by a robotic unit can offset higher debt loads.

In preparing balance sheets, some producers find it difficult to estimate the value of a robotic system.

“Some have been reluctant to put full value of the robot on the balance sheet because they don’t know what it will be worth six months from now,” Anderson said.

He recommends a balance sheet value of 80% on the robot, then depreciates it by 10% annually. “It ends up a little less than what robots are reselling for in Europe now,” he said. In the United States, robotic milkers haven’t been around long enough to build much of a resale market.

Production bump?

Most robotic milkers have been installed in dairies milking 2X. With an average 2.8-3.1 daily trips to the robot per cow, a producer may see a 5- to 8-lb. increase in milk production per cow. “Putting a robot into a 3X herd, giving 85 lbs. of milk or so, you may not want to count on additional milk,” Anderson said.

Also, with a robotic system, SCC stays equal or slightly improves, often averaging about 225,000 or less, generating some quality premiums, he said.

Anderson stressed the need for good management. “If something isn’t going right, some blame it on the robot,” he said. But with robotic systems, higher-level management is needed than without the technology.

“There’s more to manage. People need to be willing to understand the technology and adapt to it,” he said. “What it really does is flex your schedule so you can enjoy life a little bit more.”

Robotic milking systems could help transform the dairy industry’s map, Anderson said. He sees producers coordinating satellite robotic operations from a central office, instead of concentrating cows in one location.

“You can manage it so much better, and have fewer environmental impacts,” he said.