The pros and cons of robotic milking systems
Dairy robots can more than pay for themselves but only in the right farm structure, writes Martin O'Sullivan
In recent years, we have seen a steady increase in the number of robotic milking systems amongst our dairy farmer clients. Some are new entrants, but many were existing operators who needed to upgrade their facilities and decided that robots were the way forward.
My very first client who went down the robot route was a man in his late 60s milking 60 cows on his own and was seriously considering getting out of cows, but wasn't really thinking of retirement. He did his research on robots and decided he'd give it a shot as his farm layout lent itself ideally to a robotic milking system and the existing parlour facilities could be modified with moderate outlay.
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Suffice to say, that five years on in his 73rd year, he is more than content with his lot and is happy that the robot has more than paid for itself already if he compares the income he would have had if he switched to beef production.
The case for...
The big advantage of a robot is that it reduces labour dependability and will improve the farmer's lifestyle in terms of the twice-daily commitment for up to 10 months of the year.
Elaborate milking systems don't necessarily make for better grassland management, but they can free up time to devote to such matters. Installing a robotic system can potentially save up to four hours a day when things are running smoothly. A further advantage is the potential to increase milk yield by the increased number of daily milkings, which can be up to three per day. They have also been proven to be of benefit to the cow's health, offering useful data on the animal's feeding habits, weight and activity. Overall, it enables a farmer to spend more time managing his herd.
The case against...
Unless one has opted for a zero-grazing system, the farm structure in many instances may present a difficulty as, ideally, the milking facility should be central to the grazing platform. Cows walking a long distance to be milked up to three times a day will expend a lot of energy getting to and from the parlour - energy that could otherwise go into milk production.
A further negative is that service and electricity cost will be considerably higher than a conventional parlour.
A trial carried out by Teagasc showed that robotic systems use 68pc more electricity per litre of milk produced than the conventional herringbone parlour. The main culprits were water heating and the air compressor, while water consumption also increases.