What are the first few days of transitioning from a conventional milking parlor to a robotic system really like? Andrew Sandeen, a Pennsylvania State University Extension dairy educator, monitored a small dairy farm in Pennsylvania.
A single robot was retrofitted into a freestall barn originally built in 1996.
Construction to accommodate the new milking system began in spring 2019, Sandeen said in a university news release. About the same time an automated alley- scraper was installed to clean alongside sand-bedded freestalls. The new Lely Astronaut A5 unit was delivered in late July, allowing 2.5 months for installation.
The herd size was intentionally reduced a month before installation. Some cows were culled while others were dried off the day before startup. That brought the herd to 60 milking cows.
Transition day began with a final milking in the now-retired milking parlor. An enthusiastic first cow entered the robot at 10:30 a.m.
A crew worked with the robot and the cows around the clock for the next few days. Two to three people moved cows into the robot for the first 12 hours. That was the time required to complete the first milking of all 60 cows.
In hindsight a two-man crew was adequate for working with the cows. The owner spent most of the time working with the equipment. Robot-familiar professionals also were available the first few days to work with the owner on the equipment.
Throughout the first milking, some cows spent quite a bit of time in the box. The robot frequently struggled to find teats and attach, especially when rear teats were close together. There was often a lot of forward and backward movement with smaller cows. That made the attachment and milking process more difficult.
Several cows weren’t comfortable with the robotic arm moving underneath them and fought it. The arm took a beating but was impressively resilient.
About one-third of the cows didn’t let their milk down well the first day. Of course some were arriving with just a few hours of milk to start, but stress had an impact. That was apparent in the robot records and the bulk tank.
The second time the herd was milked in just 9.5 hours. There was still a need for constant attention moving cows to the commitment pen and into the box for milking, but there was a lot less hard pushing.
On the second day it was possible for just one person to manage cow flow most of the time. The robot was much more efficient finding teats. One issue that arose was a bottleneck where cows exited the robot. They were congregating in the limited space, pretending to drink from the water trough, curious about activity in the robot area.
On the third day an alarm indicated an issue with water flow and pressure at the robot. It was determined water pressure was less than adequate when water also was being used elsewhere in the barn, such as at the waterers. This led to plans for adjusting how water is stored and used on the dairy so the robot has a reliable supply at all times.
By the fourth day the system was running well. Cows were becoming accustomed to the finger gates around the milking area. Some cows appeared to like the new setup so well they’d return to the robot more often than they should, checking to see if it would provide more grain.
Two months after startup there were still a few fetch-cows every day. But the process of checking reports and pursuing important cows was easy to manage. The cows with the fewest average milkings per day — about 1.4 times — tended to be the ones on the fetch list. Other cows were visiting the robot as much as 3.7 times per day.