Robotic milking: Is it for you?

During the recent Teagasc webinar, Patrick Gowing, a dairy expansion advisor with Teagasc, and Stuart Childs, a dairy specialist with Teagasc, discussed robotic milking in Ireland.

Robotic milking is an increasing trend on Irish dairy farms with over 1,000 robots milking in the south of Ireland at present, accounting for 3.8% of the national herd.

With a wider range of choice in robotic milking machines and labour remaining an issue on many Irish dairy farms, interest in robotic milking continues to grow.

A recent Glanbia survey showing that 2% of suppliers currently use robots with that figure likely to increase to 11% over the next five years.

The interest in rotary parlours has also seen an increase in interest, with numbers likely to increase from 1% to 4% over the same time period.

Why choose Robotics?

Labour saving is one of the main reasons some farmers are exploring robotics on their farm. A number of years ago Teagasc Moorepark conducted the “auto-grass” milk trial with the Irish Grassland Association (IGA).

As part of this trial the labour input of a robotic system was compared to a traditional farmer in a conventional parlour. The study found that hours worked per cow per year was 36% lower on the robotic system compared to the conventional farmers.

The saving came from the time associated with the milking process; however, increased time was required on the robotic system for grazing management.

Some of the other benefits of choosing robotic milking includes increased flexibility, farmers aren’t tied to the farm at milking time. This may be particularly useful on farms where there is also off-farm employment.

Robots offer more information compared to a conventional parlour, with many robots offering information on a quarter-by-quarter basis. This extra and more up-to-date information makes management decisions much easier.

As many dairy farmers in Ireland have shown it is possible to operate robots on a grazing system, once your on top of grassland management.

They also work well in an indoor or partial indoor systems, where cows are fed a total mixed ration (TMR) diet or a zero grazer is used. This means expansion may be possible on farms where land accessibility around the yard may be an issue.

EPA

Cost

During the webinar the cost of installing a robot compared to a herringbone was outlined: Installing the first robot has a cost of €115,000-155,000 (excluding vat and grants), compared to a herringbone which is €10,000 per unit for a mid-range parlour.

Which means the first robot is equivalent to a 15 unit herringbone, this cost excludes building cost, that may be required when installing a robot or herringbone.

Installing subsequent robots is cheaper with an expected cost of €90,000-115,000; this is due to less components being required.

Servicing of the robots is also more expensive with an annual service costing between €2,200-4,200 (per robot).

Summary

Robots are limited in the number of cows they can milk per day to between 50-to-70 cows depending on the manufacturer, which means for larger herds a bigger initial investment is needed.

Due to this robots can be limiting in terms of expansion, you can’t just add on another row like you could in a herringbone or rotary parlour.

Some of the building cost required can be reduced by retrofitting the existing parlour to accommodate the robots.

The large investment required to enter robotic milking means that a similar profitability to a once-a-day (OAD) milking herd can be expected. With twice-a-day (TAD) milking ahead of both systems in terms of profitability per cow.

Expected profitability per cow on an existing dairy farm and new entrant when converting or establishing a robotic milking systems