Tips for a Smoother Robot Installation

The installation of robotic milking systems has continued to be a popular move for many dairy producers. In a Bovinews webinar, two dairy producers who had just installed robot systems shared the challenges they overcame and suggestions for making the transition to the new system go more smoothly.

Milking about 700 cows in a dozen robots since December 2020, Glen Moorman and his wife Mikha and parents Dan and Sandy are the owners and operators of Mormann Dairy LLC. The milking cows average right at 100 pounds per day. There dairy is just outside of Petersburg, Iowa in northeast Iowa.

“We thought robots were just a better way to milk cows with better cow flow,” says Glen. “Plus labor has become an issue. It’s harder and harder to find people who know a lot about cows, at least in our area.”

The robot installation started in June 2020 and the project took about six months to complete, retrofitting an existing barn to accommodate the cows and robots.

Not far from the Mormann Dairy is the Pioneer Dairy at the University of Wisconsin-Platteville where Corey Weigel is the enterprise manager. Their situation is unique since they had built a new barn in 2007 and included a parlor and two robots to compare the two systems. Ongoing trouble with the original robots forced them to scrap the use of the robots until new units were installed in June 2021. The original setup accommodated a forced-flow system, where cows had to go through the units to be milked before they could get food. The new set up is a free-flow system.

Both Mormann and Weigel offer advice on how to avoid some of the challenges they faced:

Have plenty of help on hand

“When you’re training cows to the robots, it’s pretty much a 24/7 job,” Mormann says. “Make sure you have plenty of help on hand, because when somebody gets tired and frustrated, that’s not good. So you want to have enough help around just to get those cows through and make sure everybody gets enough sleep.

Student labor helped Weigel get cows acclimated to the system. “There’s a headache getting cows trained to the system, so we started out with just 30 cows on each one,” says Weigel. “For the first four or five days we had students come at 4 am, noon and 8 am to push cows. After a few days cows got acclimated and we just focused on the fetch cows.”

Choose the right cows and get them trained in advance

Despite best efforts, not all cows are suited for robot milking. Crossed teats can be a problem, and Mormann says he went through the herd and removed most of the cows with that issue. He says he sold about 30% of the herd to other local dairymen when the robots went in.

Cows were pre-trained without being milked for about four days before the milkers were turned on at Mormann Dairy. He says that made the transition easier since at least some of the cows were accustomed to going through the system.

“It was pretty valuable just when the cows left the parlor and they came back to their pens after milking and would just run the whole pen through the robot,” says Mormann. “It helped to just pre-train them and also pre-train us.”

A fetch pen has been invaluable to cows at the Pioneer Dairy, Weigel says. “Fetch pens have come in really handy, we can get four or five cows in there,” says Weigel. “So once cows get into the fetch pin, their only way out is to go through the robot. So it really works well when we’re training. One cow goes in and others see it, then it’s easier to get the next one in.”

Train employees

Since they pre-trained cows, Mormann says he was able to have employees watch the system and get accustomed to the different mechanical features.

For Weigel, training college students is an ongoing process. The most important thing is getting them accustomed to knowing what data is important.

“We’re looking at somatic cell counts to see what cows are high and why. We’re also looking at daily production to see how cows are getting accustomed to the system,” says Weigel. “We’re also looking at turns to see how many times cows go through the robots. It’s pretty cool to see cows go through five or six times a day, and watching the refusals, too.”

For Weigel, getting acclimated to the new system is still an ongoing process. Mormann Dairy has been using robots for about nine months, so there is a little more time for reflection and analysis.  

“Three days, three weeks and three months were each big milestones,” says Mormann. “After three days, the cows really adjusted to the robot well. At three weeks you have a large portion of the cows go into the robot themselves. And after three months the number of fetch cows goes down quite a bit.”

Mormann says now it’s not so demanding to get cows through the system. That has allowed him to trust the robot and just perform regular maintenance and focus on managing other areas of the dairy.

Both Weigel and Mormann says one of the things they would do different is start from scratch with the building and not retrofit into an existing facility. Yet both are pleased with the results, and proud of how cows quickly acclimated to their new accommodations.

“I’m pretty excited about what we have and where things are going,” says Weigel.

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