Expert Insights

Robot vs Rotary: Contemporary Considerations

The new age question when building a dairy barn: robot vs rotary. Dan Vander Heiden, product specialist with DeLaval, recently sat down with the VES-Artex Academy webinar series to discuss milking system technologies — you can watch the whole presentation and Q&A session in the recording of the video here. Here are a few key takeaways from the presentation that you can start thinking of how it applies to your operation today — including discussions on the evolution of robotics, herd expansion, how labor affects the whole ecosystem, and financial considerations as you look to your next expansion. 

The Evolution of Robot vs Rotary

Robotic milking in the U.S. is “relatively” new, having first begun here in 2000. Early robotic herds were very European-inspired in both barn design and cow management — and over the course of the last 20 years have shifted to more of a management style focus with a comprehensive examination of facility flow and owner preferences. Many farms initially adopted it as a lifestyle choice in that it gave them more flexibility in their schedule. Then people started understanding the return-on-investment considerations (essentially paying for labor upfront versus paying for it over time) – which has come more sharply into focus with the labor challenges of today. While inline parlors are still dominant today, questions many operations ask as they look to the future revolve around robots, rotaries, the two used in tandem, and other automation enhancements that can be made. 

The Pursuit of Efficiency in an Era of Expansion 

The buzzword of all business buzzwords, the dairy industry has been obsessed with “efficiency”. It’s the concept that we chase, but never quite catch — which is true in many industries.  

For years, when labor was plentiful and the market demand was present, dairies expanded by growing their facilities and adding labor. There was no question as to “whether the market could take it”, and the labor was there to get the job done. In this era, we designed cow barns to get the maximum number of milkings per stall point per day. We could run a parlor 21 or 22 hours a day, leave a couple hours for washing, and that was considered “efficient”. That chase for efficiency matched with the absence of supply control matched with less labor being available now (due to a long list of socioeconomic and political reasons) has created a perfect storm of sorts — and it brings into further focus the demand for milking systems that drive greater efficiency, greater return on investment, and ultimately savings in labor. 

The Case for Robot vs Rotary

Robots (a voluntary milking system where cows set their own milking schedules) and rotaries (a milking parlor positioned on a rotational platform where staff attaches the milking apparatus from below, and the milking process is completed by the time a full rotation is made) are generally accepted as the two most labor-efficient present-day milking technologies. They also present excellent potential for technology adaptation and labor reduction through automated processes — either already as part of the equipment or as pieces that can be easily added on. They also are generally preferred among the workforce for the work environment they provide. And the industry is pumping additional research dollars into these technologies right now, which means that farms can have confidence in investing in the technology knowing it’ll be supported and consistently improved as their businesses grow. 

Advantages and Considerations for Robots 

  • Highly adaptable — you can invest in the quantity/scope of robots that make sense for your farm and layout today and add to it as you expand in years to come. 
  • The ability for technology adaptability and expansion is amazing. Today, we have smart pulsation, individual quarter metering, full control milking and cow-side sampling to name a few. There is great opportunity for technology and capability expansion. 
  • The amount of data available is incredible. The dairy industry continues to lead in the collection of use and data to drive smarter operations, and robotic systems help provide that. 
  • The technology is extremely cow and labor friendly, and it gives the cow that free will to do what they want, when they want, throughout the day. This is very important to today’s consumers as it relates to the fair and humane treatment of the animals in the dairy ecosystem.
  • Initial investment and lifetime maintenance costs are higher, but that can generally be offset with the long-term return on investment. 
  • There’s flexibility in how these robots can be set up on the farm — obviously, your farm’s infrastructure is a consideration, but robots can be set up in a way where you still drive the cows to the robots, which results in a management/flow similar to how you likely already milk your heard today.  
  • We have seen in dairies where robots are set up closer to pen areas, and where each cow does not have to expend as much energy getting to and from the milking parlor each day, a noticeable reduction in feed consumption, which drives a reduction in inputs and the related long-term cost savings.  

Advantages and Considerations for Rotaries 

  • This system is most consistent with the methodology you’re likely already using in terms of management and flow — while allowing you to milk more cows with less people. You bring the cows up from the barn. They get milked. They go back to their pens. It fits within the schedule and framework many farms already work with and it represents only minor changes to existing management. 
  • There is excellent expansion opportunity. Obviously, you have to pay for the installation of the rotary, but you can oversize it now to allow for adding more cows when you/your business/the demand is ready. 
  • Adaptation is relatively easy as the core milking methodology and technology is very similar to what workers may be used to working with — just laid out in a different way.  

The Combination of the Two 

Can you put a robot on a rotary? Absolutely, and the theory is gaining steam. This provides a combination of labor and automated technologies to get the job done. In these setups, you’re going to deploy robotic equipment to be very task specific. These tasks could include cleaning, pre-milking, pre-dipping, attaching and so-on. The discussion moving forward as it relates to these combinations is what is going to be the most economical way of doing this, and that will likely be a decision/choice for each farm — time and technological advances will also guide that answer.  

There are also hybrid solutions to consider. Maybe the core herd is milked on the rotary, but you have robots for specific segments of your herd, such as fresh cows, or reproductive groups to monitor progesterone levels. Or maybe you just need to supplement an existing milking facility and, rather than investing in a whole new facility, adding a robot or two can get you where you need today while providing excellent facility flexibility. 

Top Things to Keep in Mind as you Consider Moving to Robot vs Rotary

We encourage you to watch the whole discussion in the webinar to get the full perspective. But the questions you need to ask yourself and work with your local solutions providers to determine which solutions are right for you are: 

  • What fits best with your current management system? 
  • What does success look like to you (Greater productivity? Reduced labor? Etc?)
  • Is there a next generation and how do they want to farm in the future? 
  • How important/what is the vision for expansion?
  • What are the construction/infrastructure limitations of your current site, and how can changes be implemented that don’t impede current productivity?

The choice is yours. The benefits are real. But there’s no one surefire answer. Take your time, do the research, and work with local solutions providers to determine what makes the most sense for your team, your business and your family. 

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