Why did you decide to implement Robotic milking at Westmeadow Farm?

A lot of thought and research, including visiting several other farms using robotic milking technology in the Northeast, went into the decision to add milking robots at Westmeadow Farm. According to system manufacturer Lely, their A4 Astronaut (recently update to the A5 Astronaut) robots are the way of the future for dairy farms as we know it, and bring many benefits including improved milk yield, animal quality of life, early detection of disease and better AI success rate. Changing from conventional milking to robotic milking is a huge decision, requiring significant investment in the system, a barn upgrade (or an all new barn in our case) and of course, a big change to the way of life for both the animals and the farmer. In order to validate the manufacturer’s claims, we needed to see robots in action for ourselves before taking the plunge.

We visited robotic milking farms to see what the owners thought. The information collected and analysis of the data highlighted two key factors;

  1. Once the cows have adjusted to robotic milking, it allows them the freedom to choose when they will be milked – basically, letting the cow be a cow.
  2. Implementing robotic milking simultaneously with introduction of our compost bedded pack in an all new purpose designed barn, gave us the potential to maximize the milk yield benefits in excess of the forecasted 6-7%, and deliver a barn environment that enhanced animal health goals whilst reducing hand labor inputs.  

None of the 11 farms we visited had implemented both robotic milking and the compost bedded pack, so we deduced that having both on our farm would maximize the overall potential to reduce animal stressors, and deliver these other unique benefits as a package. It was a big risk, but we are very satisfied with the results so far, having just celebrated our first anniversary on January 8th 2020. 

What was the preparation like to transition from tie stall to new robotic barn?

Anytime we change an animal’s routine, it causes stress. Preparing the Girls for leaving our old tie stall system, and migrating to the new robotic milking barn with its compost bedded pack, was going to be a sea change, not just for them, but for us as well. Everything would be different. The first order of business was to introduce the Girls to the new barn itself, getting them used to the sights, sounds, smells and general environment there. The second order of business was to let them roam on the new compost bedded pack, an entirely new and different sensation for them. It was love at first wander - which was a joy to see. The third order of business was to satisfy their curiosity about the robots themselves, initially by letting them walk through the robot’s “box”, without interaction with any of its systems, and later, take their first sampling of the familiar alfalfa pellets they love so much, flavored with a little natural apple cider. This allowed them to begin associating the new robots with their tasty treats, building trust and confidence in the overall system. The fourth and final order of business was have them interact with the robotic milking arm itself – that was going to be crunch time. 

We spent the first 2 days walking the Girls back and forth to the new barn, having them enjoy their new found freedom roaming and socializing at will on the bedded pack. They learned to drink from the new waterers and, studied the new headlocks with interest. They walked round and round, ran a bit and played a lot, just like they do when first out on fresh pasture in spring, checking the full length and breadth of the pack. Some stared at the 22ft diameter “helicopter fans” hanging from the ceiling, turning lazily, generating a gentle breeze, and the usual suspects headed for, and quickly learned how to switch on the massage brush. That caught on pretty quickly, and soon there was a traffic queue!!

Days 3 and 4 had them spend the entire days in the barn, and provided a gated interaction with the robot “box” for each animal, meaning after they entered, the front door which contains the feeding trough with the alfalfa pellets closed, and then the back gate closed behind the animal. They could enjoy a small amount of pellets before we released them to make way for the next animal. Funnily enough, several of them wanted to do a 180° and come right back in for more goodies, but with so many to put through, we routed them back to the pack. We had to encourage several of the younger girls into the “box”, but it seldom took more than a little gentle nudge or words of encouragement, and they got the hang of it.

Day 5 was to be the first full on milking day. For that day, and the following 3 weeks, we would all be tested, as it was to be a 24 hour shift arrangement, where we would move all the girls forward, and one by one introduce them to their very first robotic milking experience. Our preparations paid off, and the introductions went surprisingly well, so much so that we stood down to an 18 hour shift after only 7 days, and a 12 hour shift in the second week. A handful of the Girls were concerned about the whole deal, and let us know with an occasional, perfectly aimed kick at the robot’s arm, which is amazingly robust and took all the punishment they doled out. By those cow’s second or third visit to the robot however, they were interacting with it like it was old hat. They are such clever Girls really, they realized very quickly that the robot presented no threat, it gave them their favorite treats and they off loaded some of their milk in the process -  all good news. 

After 2 weeks, things had pretty much settled down. The cows clearly preferred this new free choice system, no doubt realizing that also, the robot arm and cluster uses milking technology that automatically disconnects from each teat individually as milk flow decreases, based on sophisticated sensors, greatly enhancing udder health and cow comfort. 

Has there been a significant increase in dairy yield since using the Lely A4 robots?

With our current 150 milkers, we noticed an immediate 3% improvement in yield after the first ten days. This was actually a surprise, as we expected the stress of the change in their familiar milking system to the new set up to bring about a temporary decrease in yield overall!

We realized we might be onto something with the implementation of robots in conjunction with our compost bedded pack. Lely told us to expect between 5-6% yield improvement with the A4 Astronaut robots, and we launched the program with this expectation. We are delighted to say that we are actually seeing a 10% improvement in yield, with a few of the herd even attaining a 12% improvement. So overall the herd average is now 10% better than it was in the tie stall. It’s likely that the robots account for 4 - 5% improvement on their own, and if the compost bedded pack had been introduced on its own without robots, it might would have achieved a 3% improvement, but it’s clear that the combination of the two being introduced simultaneously lies behind the impressive results we have seen. There is little doubt that our efforts in barn design together with the robotic milking system overall, as a combined approach targeting elimination or reduction of stress for the animals wherever possible, is the key to the results we see.

Do the robots ever injure the animals during the milking process?

We have never seen the animals in any sort of pain or become injured when using a Lely Astronaut A4 robot. On the very odd occasion in fact, the Girls may inflict a little pain on the robot with a sharp kick of protest! The only real area of challenge, was the preliminary wash sequence where the robot arm brush scrubs the teat area and udder floor to remove soils before the claw cups are attached. This was an entirely new sensation, both physically and in terms of sound, and that’s where the kicking came from. Some of the Girls moved about within the “box” which caused the ever diligent robot to follow them, attempting to gets its brushes on target and to work cleaning, only to receive a sharp kick for its trouble. But in the end, again the Girls realized the robot doesn’t hurt or harm them in any way, and once they acclimatized to the brushing sensation, which actually helps with the milk “let down” response, that pretty much was the end of the kicking. 

We have found that it reduces injury by individually milking quarters. That way, the milker vacuum doesn’t stay on when she is finished milking.

The only other area of adjustment was where a younger cow was fidgety or flighty at process start, so she made it hard and time consuming for the robot to clean as well as connect, running the risk she will have eaten all her goodies while the robot is still milking her. When that happens, she just wants to leave the box, resulting in a failed milking event. Although rare, whenever this happens, we see she behaves normally on her next visit, and things go according to plan. Like I said, they are really quite clever.    

We have zero examples on any robot caused actual injuries to an animal. Initially, we had handful of cases where a cow was caught by the automatic box entry gate that the robot controls. This is just a case of the animal excitedly trying to force her way in before the robot was ready, and simply getting stuck in the gate in her hurry. The gate releases after a few seconds, and certainly didn’t cause the animal any pain or harm. We made some minor welded adjustments on that gate, and have not seen the issue since.

How long was the transition period for the animals to acclimate to the milking robots?

It was shorter than we thought in several respects. Lely prepared us for a two to three week intensive 24 hour program. Each farm is also different depending on what the animal is used to. So for the first two weeks, we prepared to have a day shift and night shift duty to watch the herd and make sure there were no issues, and also drew up a roster of the Girls to keep track of events. 

What we noticed was that in as little as three days, the smartest of the animals pretty much had it nailed. We continued running the two week program, but dispensed with the 24 hour shift after 7 days. By the end of the two weeks, there were still a few Girls that needed a little help using the machines, but that was really easy and took very little time. What we also noticed was that our shifts quickly went from 5 on the team helping the animals in the first couple days, to only 2 of us on each team. It was amazing just how quickly most of the herd acclimated to the robots. As of January 2020, a year after implementation, there are still a few Girls who are lax about heading on into the robots! It’s funny actually, they know who they are, and as soon as we walk out onto the pack to call them in, they are already up and walking - busted!!  Without a whimper, they milk out, and return to their spot on the pack – same time tomorrow!!

Are there other functions of the A4 robots aside from milking the animals?

There are a host of tools and technologies in the robot that we take full advantage of. The most basic of these tools would be the weighing scales, used at every milking event, where we can track weight continuously, giving us an early warning of a possible deterioration in health, which is often accompanied by a shift in weight.  We are also able to test the conductivity of the milk right in the robot’s arm as the milk is leaving the animal. This conductivity tells us things like if there is blood in the milk, or the milk might be mastitic in nature. When any conductivity value outside the limits we set is detected, that milk is routed automatically to collection pails instead of the main milk tank. This has the twin benefit of enhancing the quality of the milk in the tank by not allowing substandard milk to dilute premium milk, and the robot may route the offending cow directly to the hospital pen, where we are alerted and can start examination or treatment as applicable without delay. All of this information happens quickly and accurately, appearing on the screen immediately for us to dissect and forecast whether or not there might be an issue. Early warning time really matters when dealing with a sick animal it gives us the edge on treatment, thus reducing cost, and more importantly, catching something in time reduces animal discomfort, and often the treatment regimen needed. 

Another amazing tool that we just had retrofitted to both our Astronauts is the somatic cell counter. This counter is the primary indicator of mastitis developing or already present in the cow. Basically,  we now have a real-time live readout of data that would usually take days to determine in a lab. We correlated its findings with known lab results, and found a near exact match. Determining something like mastitis early can save an animal pain or long term udder damage, and allow us to get moving on treatment quickly, saving time and money. These robots are revolutionary in the amount of data they generate, and we can dive into that data to help triangulate and find problems, improve the quality of our decision making and provide a really meaningful surveillance of the general health and wellbeing of the herd.