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Lely Parlor

Is Robotics Part of the Organic Dairy Farm of the Future?

By Rick Kersbergen Extension Professor, University of Maine Cooperative Extension

I recently was able to take a sabbatical and traveled to Europe to look at dairy systems. Most of my time was spent in the Netherlands where I was able to see lots of technology in action. I documented a lot of my travels in a series of blog posts that you can find at:

http://umaine.edu/livestock/blog/category/cows-and-crops/

Dutch farmers have invested heavily in the recent past to upgrade their facilities and barn infrastructure. Some of the upgrades have been due to incentives by the government to reduce ammonia emissions from manure and to take advantage of solar technology.

Happy Robitic Farmer

Mixing, feeding robot

Nearly 90% of the farms I visited were robotic milking farms, and some estimate that nearly half of the dairies in the Netherlands use robotic technology. One of the organic dairy farms I visited was using a mobile robot that traveled to specific docking stations in the pastures. Starting in 2015, all dairy cows (organic or not) need to have access to pasture during the grazing season.

Robotics interests me for many reasons. Many of the organic dairies I work with in Maine face an aging crisis. Robotic technology may provide an incentive for another generation to continue the farm, as it provides producers with something they never have enough of…time. If you read popular press articles about farms that have switched to robotic milking, they all discuss the fact that families can now get time off to go to school functions, baseball games or just relax! Additionally, the time afforded by robotic milking also allows smaller farms with limited labor to take advantage of the narrow window of opportunity that nature provides to harvest optimum quality forage for the winter months. As one of the farmers I visited said…”I don’t get up at 4am every day anymore, but my phone may get me up at 2am once a month to adjust something on the robot!”

There are many other reasons robotics may play a role in the small family farm of the future. When I visit dairy farms, I always try and make an appraisal of how content and “happy” the cows are in herd. How cows react to people or distractions are good indicators of how they are treated and their level of contentment. The higher the percentage of cows that are lying down chewing their cud, or grazing in the pasture or eating at the feed bunk is an indicator of comfort. What I noticed in my travels was the calm nature of the cows on robotic farms. These cows are never “pushed” by people, so walking through some of the barns can be quite a challenge, as the cows don’t get out of the way when you walk by!

Robotic milking offers other benefits as well. The information you can receive about individual cows is amazing. Not only is milk yield tracked, but also a host of other management data is available to the producer, including activity, milk quality, rumination and heat detection. Other robotic technology is also available, from calf feeding to mixing and feeding cows. At one farm I visited, I saw the feed in the feed bunk being pushed up for one group while another group TMR was mixed and fed out … and I never saw a single person!

Electronic grazeway to control cow movement to and from a pasture.

Obviously, there are some challenges, and these systems will not be for everyone. Most of the barns where robots were used were fairly new and designed to facilitate cow flow. Therefore, not only might you be investing in the robotic technology, but you may also need to construct new facilities as well. Pasture management as required by organic certification may also be difficult, especially if pastures are located a distance from the milking facilities.

While in Europe, I visited Germany and went to the “Eurotier” farm exposition. Robotics was definitely the main attraction that was drawing farmers in to the dairy pavilions. Numerous companies were showing off robotic feeding and milking equipment.

Most exciting to many of the visitors were the new rotary robotic milking parlors. Here are some links to more information about them and a large parlor installation in Finland.

These parlors are becoming more attractive as the European Union is lifting the milk quota system and many farmers are considering expansion. While “traditional” robotic milking is most efficient and effective for farms in the 60- 300 cow farm range, many of the larger farms have stayed away from this technology as large parallel or herringbone milking parlors are more efficient when milking large herds. The advent of robotic rotary parlors may change all that. Goat robotic rotary parlors were also very popular at the show!

If you are considering investing in robotic milking technology, I suggest you do a lot of homework. Larry Tramel at Iowa State University has spent a lot of time developing some tools for evaluating the potential for such an investment. Some of his information is available at:

http://www.extension.iastate.edu/dubuque/dairy