Automatic Milking Systems Worth the Money

Spanish study to determine automatic milking system efficiency shows how unit can help boost your bottom line.

Getting maximum efficiency from your automatic milking system can help you recoup the unit's costs sooner and boost your bottom line by increasing the time it spends milking cows.

Robotic or automatic milking systems are increasingly becoming popular on Canadian dairy farms. Producer interest in this newer technology has grown rapidly since the First North American Robotic Milking Conference in Toronto in 2002. The first AMS unit was installed in Europe in 1992, and in North America, in Ontario, in 1999.

Recent studies have identified five factors that influence producers to switch to an AMS from a conventional milking parlour:

  • increased flexibility;
  • less labour;
  • frequent milking,
  • staff reduction;
  • replacing milking system.

A group of Spanish researchers recently conducted a study to determine an AMS unit's maximum efficiency. They analysed data from 34 single units on 29 dairy farms in Galacia, northwest Spain. They wanted to document the quantitative measures of milking with an AMS under normal operating conditions. The data were collected from 21 Lely Astronaut systems, 11 DeLaval VMS units and two Galaxy units from Insentec for one year.

How quickly a machine pays for itself is one way of measuring its efficiency from a financial standpoint.

With an AMS unit, production efficiency is determined by measuring certain variables, such as milk yield, milking frequency, teat cup attachment success rate, milking length time and number of milkings per cow per day. However, many factors contribute to these variables, including the barn's physical environment, herd size and cow traffic, among others. The researchers first documented the raw data from each of the 34 AMS units (see table). The average farm in the study had 52.7 Holstein cows milked per AMS. Each cow averaged 191.2 days in milk and 2.28 calvings. About 35 per cent of cows in the herds were in their first lactation.

Producers fed their own total mixed rations of corn and grass silages. The cows were given 1.5 to 10 kilograms of concentrate per day, depending on calvings, days in milk and milk production. Each producer programmed their AMS unit according to their preferences. New heifers had a range of four to six-and-a-half hours between milkings. The AMS units noted when cows were overdue if it was 12 to 14 hours since their last milking. Producers reported the amount of time spent fetching cows. The average range was five to 120 minutes per day per AMS. The researchers noticed producers often did other chores while fetching the cows.

Occupation rate, which the researchers reported as an important measure of AMS efficiency, was defined as the percentage of time spent on milking processes divided by the total time in a year. Calculations were made to estimate the opportunity for increasing the occupation rate percentage for each farm. The calculations typically were based on higher numbers of cows per AMS units, which is a main driver for higher occupation rate. However, this depends on several factors, such as available barn space and increased competition for the AMS.

If more cows are using the AMS, there will be tradeoffs between the unit's efficiency and other variables, including milk per cow and number of milkings per cow per day. Data analysis showed cow numbers and flow rates had the most impact on milk yield per AMS.

The researchers estimated an AMS unit maximizing its milk yield per year would average between 2.4 and 2.6 milkings per cow per day and between 59 and 68 cows milked. Producers could recoup their investment in an AMS sooner and increase its efficiency by putting more cows through the unit, assuming fixed costs are held constant when the AMS is operating below its capacity, the researchers calculated. Several field studies have been done on AMS use on Ontario dairy farms. They've shown labour-saving advantages for robotic milking related to handling and cleanup compared with milking parlours with similar herd sizes.

Additional benefits gleaned from the Spanish study were perceived welfare advantage for the cow, since she is allowed more freedom, and increased flexibility of reduced labour to do the milking.

Statistics for the production and operation of automatic milking systems in Galacia, Spain (adopted from Castors et al, 2012)
Number of Cows/AMS 52.7 29.3 67.6
Milkings/AMS/year 51,259 29,758 63,160
Rejections/AMS/year 18,504 932 57,290
Milkings/cow/day 2.69 2.29 3.57
Milk yield/cow/day (kg) 28.5 19.3 34.9
Milk yield/AMS/year (kg) 549,734 237,258 796,643
Milk yield/cow/year (kg) 10,410 7,047 12,739
Milk yield/milking (kg) 10.67 7.07 13.65
Cleaning time/year (hr:min) 423:26 247:42 798:10
Rejections time/year (hr:min) 80:11 6:28 241:16
Visit time/AMS/year (hr:min) 6,308:40 3,853:44 7,866:32
Working time/year (hr:min) 6,812:18 4,118:48 8,211:37
Milking downtime/year (hr:min) 1,947:41 548:22 4,641:11
Visit time/cow/milking (min) 7.41 5.97 9.37
Occupation rate (%) 72.01 44 89.79

Tom Wright is OMAFRA's dairy cattle nutritionist.

Reference: Castro, A., Pereira, J.M., Amiama, C. and J. Bueno. 2012. Estimating efficiency in automatic milking systems. J. Dairy Sci. 95:929-936.

This article first appeared in the May 2012 Milk Producer magazine.

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