Advice for planning a robotic system

The first place to start when planning an automated system is to consider your goals and motivation, suggests Bas van Santen, UK Robotics Performance Manager for ForFarmers.

Robotic Milking
New Shed cropped - ForFarmers UK

All farmers have different goals for their dairy herd and that will influence the detail of an automated system. Are you driven by increasing overall production, Return on Investment, reaching cows’ genetic potential or profit? Every farm set up is different too, with different resources including management and labour so there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach for automated systems. However, this means that those planning to install robots could create a truly bespoke set up to suit them, their herd and business.

Bas joined the ForFarmers robotic team earlier this year bringing more than 25 years’ experience of the dairy industry including roles with ADAS and the Dairy Group. More recently he spent over 10 years as a robotic specialist at Lely, where he was responsible for overseeing and supporting Lely Centers with new and existing installations in the UK and Ireland.

He advises anyone planning a robotic system to visit as many units as possible. “See the different layouts and look at every detail of their system. Ask plenty of questions too – including what they would do differently if they did it again so you can benefit from their experiences.”

Putting the cow first

Cow flow through the building needs careful thought and planning to allow the whole herd free access to feed, water and the robot, he says. “The main principle here is that it is the cow’s choice when to eat, drink, rest or be milked. That should be made as easy as possible for her with minimal interference from people or gates.” This requires avoiding dead ends in the building for cows which make this free flow cow traffic difficult, particularly for the lower ranking cows in the herd, he adds. “This could include having gaps between blocks of cubicles so that cows don’t have to walk a long way around to where they want to be, or to avoid dominant cows.” He also stresses the importance of space around the robots themselves, again to help lower ranking animals access. “It’s all about minimising stress, which is so important to cow health, welfare and performance, and allowing the cows to behave as naturally as possible.

Bas van Santen

“It’s important to remember that yields don’t come from fresh air,” he continues. He advocates having enough feed barrier space for the whole herd to eat at the same time if possible. “You need to get those intakes to drive yield.” He recommends automated feed pushers too to ensure the cows have continuous access to feed at the barrier. Similarly, cows need 4-5kg of water per kg of milk they produce, so distribution and access to water troughs should be carefully considered and troughs kept clean and inviting.

“Also think about labour flow. If you have robots at opposite ends of the shed people will spend a lot of time walking up and down between them.” Arrangement of the robots, whether side by side or parallel to each other and their orientation will also need consideration, although other factors, particularly shed design, may influence this, he explains.

Chapman robot milkers

Insights from data

Once a system is up and running the data provided by the robots will give insight into performance and highlight areas for improvement or opportunity. “This data is really valuable but the sheer volume of it can be overwhelming,” says Bas. “Many farmers don’t want to spend their time scrutinising data so ForFarmers Robotic Analysis Programme can help. It’s the only system that can draw in data from six robot manufacturers and gives ForFarmers robotic specialists remote access to their clients’ data including a daily report.”

Previously the robotics team would only have access to the data while on the farm, and even then it would only be for the previous 24 hours. Now with the Robotic Analysis Programme they have access to information including feed intakes, robot visits and yields per cow. It makes it easier for the team to notice trends and get a deeper understanding of everything that is happening on the unit, says Bas.

The overall aim of the programme is to help automated dairy units refine their feed optimisation and robot performance, he concludes. “Robots cost the same to run regardless of how much milk they are responsible for. The Robotic Analysis Programme can help you fine tune your system to make sure you get the absolute best from your feed inputs and robots themselves.”

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