Making the switch to robotics
Friday, March 2, 2018
Posted by: Joanna Wavrunek, digital communications manager
By Greg Steele, Compeer Financial
Robotics is on a lot of farmers’ minds these days.
The topic drew a standing room-only crowd of about 120 to a panel discussion at the 2018 Dairy Strong conference in January. Two farmers and a consultant talked about the factors that go into making the transformative decision to add a robotic milking system.
The session focused on facility and livestock considerations, data and system management, and economics and cost.
Mark Berning, a farmer from St. Michael, Minn., said the basis for transitioning to robotics at Greenwave Farms was twofold: Reliable labor was scarce in part because of a wage increase in the community, and Mark’s son, David, decided to come back to a career in dairy farming.
The transition to robotics happened over a few years as the farm went from milking 220 cows in a step parlor to the construction of an eight-box freestall barn that featured cross ventilation, waterbed stalls and robotic feed push.
Greenwave’s results were impressive. Milk production moved up to 90 pounds, somatic cell count dropped to the 100,000 range and the break-even fell to about $15. The impact on labor was dramatic as costs dropped under $1/cwt, which includes family draws and part-time labor that supplements the family’s labor. Mark said the key was increasing production while lowering other costs.
He also said the large amount of data provided by the technology investment leads to making more profitable and better cow-management decisions. He emphasized that having a strong technological interest and an eagerness to use data for management are requirements for those thinking about robotics.
Swisslane Farms in Alto, Mich., has had a robotic milking system for seven years. Tom Oesch provided background on how his 1,500-cow conventional dairy added an eight-box robot barn at the time Tom and his brother Matt Oesch returned to the farm. They decided to go with the sand bedding for cow comfort in their freestall barn, which Tom believes fits their systems well. He noted that the sand kits that equipment manufacturers offer are a big help in protecting the equipment from excessive wear and tear.
Feeding strategies were high on Tom’s list of areas that have to be given significant thought when considering robotic systems. He said the pelleted feed required to be fed in these stems conflicts with the dairy farm’s efforts to maximize the use of homegrown feed and forage. Swisslane continues to work hard to lower feed costs because, generally, those costs will be higher on a robotic dairy and the offset needs to come from increased production.
Economics over labor
Steve Bodart, a dairy consultant with Compeer Financial in Baldwin, Wis., said farmers need to improve all production metrics so they can forecast adequate returns before making the significant financial investment necessary for robotic technology. Some of the key metrics: achieving 5,000 pounds or more of milk sold per robot, a replacement rate of less than 35 percent, and selling more than 6.25 pounds of combined butter fat and protein per cow.
With labor availability a prevailing concern among dairy farmers, Steve cautioned that economics needs to win out when making the decision to go with robotics. It must be grounded in the financial benefit that will come from high-producing cows, improved reproduction and herd health, and a cost of production that provides profits.
Photo credit: Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board