Farm Ireland

Monday 18 December 2017

Can a robotic milkers be an energy efficient fit for Irish farming systems?

John Upton and Bernadette O'Brien

With 10,000 commercial farms worldwide using automatic or robotic milking systems, these futuristic milking systems are set to grow exponentially in the coming years. In fact, it is estimated that up to 20pc of cows in Europe will be milked automatically by 2020.

With this is in mind, Teagasc embarked on a three-year EU-funded study of automatic or robotic milking at its livestock systems research centre in Moorepark, Fermoy.

The importance of automatic milking (AM) in Ireland will be dictated by the degree to which it can be integrated into a grass-based milk production system.

The economic viability of AM will determine how widely the technology will be adopted and reducing energy costs will be a very significant part of this work.

As part of our study, we hope to include feedback from analysis of commercial farms in Ireland that are operating robotic milking systems.

This analysis will include, for example, milk production data from the robot; energy and water usage; grass measurement data and economic data, such as profit monitor data.

This will allow benchmarking of production costs including energy costs from commercial automatic milking systems.

Across Europe, dairy farmers are adopting AM at an accelerating rate for reasons such as improvement in lifestyle, a reduction in manual labour, difficulties attracting skilled labour and increased profitability based on higher milk production and lower labour costs.

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However, while indoor feeding systems have been well adapted to AM, cow grazing systems have not.

So, if AM is to become a realistic alternative to conventional manual milking in grass-based milk production systems like Ireland, the practical challenges of integrating AM and grazing must be researched.

This issue is crucially important as AM could represent an important advancement in precision dairy farming.

AM has the potential to improve automatic data collection, providing herd managers with data that will enable them to make effective management decisions.

The increased use of automation would also help to reduce manual tasks on farms, allowing farmers to shift their focus from operational tasks to management and strategic ones that are economically beneficial.

As energy costs rise year on year, the energy consumption of AM is an important factor to take into account when assessing the system as an option for Irish dairy farmers.


Reducing electricity consumption will reduce production costs because electricity currently represents approximately 4pc of on-farm variable costs.

Reducing energy use also has an environmental benefit, because electricity consumption has been shown to represent 12pc of total primary energy use on pasture-based dairy farms in Ireland.

Here, we examine a Moorepark study on the energy efficiency of an automatic milking system.

The study was carried out on a 24ha block of the dairy research farm at Teagasc, Moorepark.

The land area was divided into three grazing sections of 8ha each (A, B, C), which were further divided into 1ha paddocks.

Four main roadways radiated from the centrally located dairy and water was located at the dairy. The maximum distance to the furthest paddock was approximately 750m.

The dairy featured one Merlin AMS unit, supplied by Fullwood for research, installed adjacent to the existing shed. Cows were milked on average 1.87 times per day in 2012 and the system produced 284,592 litres of milk.

Data collection was undertaken from May to October during 2011 and 2012.

Over these periods, information such as milkings per cow per day, milk yield and milk quality parameters such as total bacteria count (TBC) and somatic cell count (SCC) were collected.

The electricity consumption of the milking system was also monitored using calibrated equipment and software.

The equipment used allowed the researchers to measure the electricity consumption of individual components in the dairy such as the milking robot, vacuum pump, air compressor, milk cooling and water heating systems.

Irish Independent