Installations of robotic-milking systems remain strong. And the systems are growing bigger, says Doug Reinemann, a professor in biological-systems engineering at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. A few years ago he would see farms installing two robots; now some large farms are installing as many as a dozen.

Continued growth in milking robots is attributed to several factors.

  • Farm labor is scarce.
  • Aging milking systems are being replaced.
  • Robots give greater flexibility to young dairy-farm families and physical relief for aging farmers.

It’s happening globally. The global market for milking robots is expected to grow at an annual rate of 12 percent in the next five years, according to market analyst Absolute Reports.

“And robots are getting better every day,” Reinemann said.

Software is more user-friendly and the information provided to farmers has greatly improved, he said. Farmers can use that information to detect cows in heat and improve synchronized breeding programs as well as monitor milk quantity, milk quality and more.

Hardware has improved as well. Much of the technology is modular in design. Components – electronic boards, sensors, robotic arms and teat cups – can be more easily upgraded.

Paul and Carolyn Reitsma of Reiway Dairy, near Sauk Centre, Minnesota, installed in May four DeLaval VMS milking system V300 robots. In addition to monitoring milk production they use the robots to monitor cow health. Abnormalities in flow rates can indicate ketosis, for example, Carolyn Reitsma said.

The Reitsmas had been milking 150 cows in a 90-cow tiestall barn. Their sons expressed interest in farming so to support added family members the dairy herd would need to be expanded. The family decided to build a freestall barn and increase the herd to 220 cows.

The family started the planning process in February 2018 and began construction in September 2018. The freestall barn is cross-ventilated and was built wide enough to include special-needs pens.

The new facility was designed so cows have easy access to the robots. The robot area features a pit; taking two steps into that pit enables one to see at eye level both machines and cows. Cows at Reiway Dairy visit the robots an average of three times daily; they average 84 pounds of milk per cow per day.

At Hinchley’s Dairy Farm near Cambridge, Wisconsin, the 238-cow herd averages 83 pounds of milk per cow per day. Duane and Tina Hinchley installed in December 2018 four Lely Astronaut A5 milking robots. In addition to managing the herd, the couple farms 2,300 acres and operates an educational dairy-tour business. They’ve hosted for the past 22 years seasonal tours from April through October. They do all that work with four part-time employees – two college students and two high school students.

The Hinchleys had discussed updating their facilities for a few years and did a lot of homework. They toured about 30 farms to evaluate robotic-milking systems as well as stalling systems, ventilation and lighting. Tina Hinchley even monitored a robot for three hours at one of the farms.

“In all that time it never failed and cows didn’t kick off the cups,” she said.

Their daughter, Anna Hinchley, also provided input on facility design. She plans to return to the farm after graduating in May with a dairy-science degree from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She served an internship in summer 2018, which provided her an opportunity to visit various farms. She frequently asked farmers what they would change on their farms if they could. She reported back to her parents in addition to taking lots of photos.

“Our new design came from what she learned,” Tina Hinchley said.

The Hinchleys decided to install the robots side by side toll-booth style. One pair of robots is used for smaller animals – first-calf heifers and Jerseys. The other pair is used for larger heavier-lactating cows. Cows are attracted to the robots, which each feature a small feeder that dispenses a small supply of cherry-scented pellets.

In the new barn they also installed a slatted floor over a manure pit. Instead of using sand bedding, which can be abrasive on mechanical equipment, they opted to use waterbeds. They’ve observed a lot fewer hock abrasions, Tina Hinchley said.

For many years she milked cows in a tiestall barn. She would generally start milking about 4 a.m. and prepare for the milk hauler at 8 a.m. And then she’d clean the barn to be ready for tours at 9 a.m.

“Our kids have seen us working,” she said. “After adding the robots they’ve seen how much easier our life is.”

Brothers Brian and Steve Schmitz of Peaceful Valley Dairy near Norwalk, Wisconsin, installed in December 2016 three GEA box-style robots. With Brian Schmitz’s son, Jaden Schmitz, the family milks 160 cows. They had been milking in a tiestall barn; it was physically demanding. They decided if they wanted to continue farming they needed to change, Brian Schmitz said.

“We didn’t think a parlor was the route we wanted to take so we started talking with other farmers about robots,” he said. “The GEA system provided teat-cleaning and post-dipping all in one liner and that was one of the reasons we decided on it.

"The robots have given us greater flexibility. We still need to manage; one can’t just walk away and think everything’s fine. It’s just a different type of management.”

Data collected from the robots enable him to focus more on areas such as reproduction and rumen function.

“Our breeding program has really improved since we added the robots,” he said. “We breed back much better and on time.”

Since the robots were added the herd’s milk production has increased from 80 pounds to 85 pounds of milk per cow per day, he said.

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Lynn Grooms writes about the diversity of agriculture, including the industry’s newest ideas, research and technologies as a staff reporter for Agri-View based in Wisconsin.