Dairy turns to robotic milkers

When is it time for change? There are multiple considerations — some that go far beyond the usual economics and logistics.

For Al Riedstra and his 3,700-cow dairy in St. Joseph County’s Mendon, there were not only labor costs, but also labor availability to contemplate. And animal handling and comfort needed to be considered — some of it being largely driven by special-interest groups and end users.

Riedstra is not shy of innovation, new technologies or expansion. The farm was already milking 3,200 cows in a 72-stall rotary parlor three times a day, when a new system went on line in April. Riedstra added a barn behind the rotary operation, which houses 480 cows, divided into four 120-cow units.

They’re milked with robotic milkers largely at the cow’s discretion. Each of the four groups has access to two robotic milkers using a Voluntary Milking System. The equipment is manufactured by DeLaval. Riedstra is the first to install DeLaval equipment in Michigan.

Key Points

• Al Riedstra is first in the state to install a DeLaval robotic milking system.

• About 480 cows are in a new barn with eight robotic milkers.

• The system is designed as a voluntary milking system.

As cows move toward the feed alley, they travel through a gate when their electronic ear tags are read and determined if it’s been more than eight hours since the last milking, says Ken Berberich of DeLaval.

If it has been more than eight hours, the cow is diverted to a milking station where the robotic milkers are located. If not, the cow is allowed to continue on her way to the feed.

Training required

Cows need to be trained to enter the milking unit. “It usually takes about a day and a half, sometimes longer; it depends on each cow,” Berberich says.

Each teat is individually cleaned, stimulated, pre-milked and dried before milking by a robotic arm.

The teat preparation cup has its own separate line. Teat cups are rinsed between each cow and drained upside down. The robotic arm uses a teat visualization system that includes a camera, coupled with dual lasers to locate each teat for quick and accurate attachment. “Cows have different-sized udders, and teats are not all the same. With this system, we can come in at 45-degree angles,” Berberich says.

During the milking process, a touch-screen interface gives producers control of the entire system.

This system, Berberich says, features true quarter milking with four optical milk meters monitoring milk yields, flow rates, time, conductivity and blood levels. Abnormal milk will automatically be diverted according to the criteria the producer sets in the software.

Each robotic system sells for about $200,000, which fluctuates with the number of units purchased. “It costs around 40 cents per hundredweight of milk in maintenance,” Berberich says. “And producers can purchase maintenance contracts with DeLaval.”

The economics of the robotic system are still being evaluated on the Riedstra farm, but Berberich says the cows are averaging 2.9 milkings a day and production is slightly down, 82 pounds, from the rotary parlor barn average of about 90 pounds. “It’s very early, and weather has played a bit of a factor,” Berberich says.

08123123A.tif
ROBOTICS ON LINE: Ken Berberich, district sales manager for DeLaval, stands next to one of the eight robotic milkers recently installed on Al Riedstra’s farm in Mendon. Several hundred people showed up for an open house June 20 to view the milkers in action.
08123123C.tifCOW COMFORT: Cows feed at the alley, while at the right is where the robotic milkers are housed.
08123123D.tifPRECISION GUIDANCE: A camera and lasers help guild the cups for placement on the teats.


This article published in the August, 2012 edition of MICHIGAN FARMER.

All rights reserved. Copyright Farm Progress Cos. 2012.