Adam Seibel demonstrated the robotic milker at Seibel’s Organic Dairy in Bloomer. Seibel’s farm was one of the first organic farms in the country to install robotic milkers in 2011. The 2019 Wisconsin Outstanding Young Farmer milks about 140 cows.

The key to keeping small dairy farms on the Wisconsin landscape could come down to a willingness to embrace technology.

The trend in the dairy industry, taking into account all-new installations around the world, according to Doug Reinemann, associate dean for Extension and Outreach at the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences and professor and director of the Milking Research and Instruction Lab at UW–Madison, is toward very large farms with very large rotary parlors. Many of these installations are featuring a rotary parlor with robots along the inside that prep, milk and post dip each cow as it makes its way around the rotary or a variation on the robotic rotary where each rotary stall has its own robotic arm for milking the cow.

Despite the new technology opening up the possibility for more robots on larger farms, Reinemann said many smaller farms are opting for robotic milking with box-style systems, with around 60 cows per box and usually two to four boxes.

“I think the box-style robotic milking system has got a lot of advantages,” Reinemann said March 30 during the Badger Dairy Insight webinar, “Robotic Farm Management: What is Different?” “I think it’s better for cows than the alternative of a large farm with a rotary parlor. I think it’s better for people. And I think it’s better for rural communities.”

Reinemann said the challenge is making the robotic milking box systems economically competitive with the trend in the dairy industry of a large firm using a rotary milking parlor.

“The cost of the robot is largely recovered on how much milk you harvest from that box every day or every year,” he said. “So that really motivated the study to figure out what are the kind of limits on milk per box per day ... and then to identify area of opportunity to improve the economics of robotic milking installations.”

Reinemann said the largest single factor for increasing milk per box per day is the percentage of the day that box is being used for milking. Based on some recent studies in the U.S. and Canada, the average robot is milking cows for about 71% of the day.

“Pushing this to the limits or the theoretical maximum is about 90%,” he said. “The reason we can’t get to 100% is we have to shut the systems down to clean.

“But in order to make use of that time, we have to have enough cows with enough milk to actually get more milk per box per day.”

Key strategies to achieving high utilization numbers from the robots include milking cows with full udders, milking faster, and making sure the cows exit the robot in a timely fashion after milking is complete, Reinemann said.

“We have a certain amount of time in the day that the box is available, and we’re trying to fill up that box in the way that gives us the most advantage of using that time,” he said.

The first step to success, he said, is milking cows in early lactation frequently, up to four times a day, to get peak milk and putting limitations on the times the cows have permission to enter the boxes based on their phase of lactation.

“The problem you run into in achieving the high pounds per box per day is there’s just too many cows,” Reinemann said. “It’s unlikely that any scenario would be able to run 127 cows through a robot twice a day just because of limitations on cow traffic.”

While milking high-performing cows frequently is important, Reinemann said farms considering an automated milking system must carefully consider farm design.

“What the farms that are actually pushing the limits of this technology are finding is, as soon as they put in a robot or very shortly after, they want more stalls,” he said. “In order to get high production out of the box, you need to put more cows on, and that means you need more stalls.

“It also means that, in order to get these kind of numbers, we need really great barn design and really smart strategies for managing cow traffic.”