Advice for robotic systems

With robotic systems now accounting for 55% of new milking projects, automated milking is gaining ground. Those investment decisions are driven by labour shortages, particularly post Brexit, and therefore increased competition for labour with other sectors, says Andy Paine, Head of Ruminant Marketing. Improvements in robotic technology also mean that reliability of automated systems had improved. Lifestyle factors also play a part. “Farmers are recognising that automation can offer a different work-life balance and allow for other interests and priorities. And from a business point of view there is the ability to reach cows’ genetic potential through milking upwards of three times a day.”

Robotic Milking
New Shed cropped - ForFarmers UK

Productivity or profitability?

Increased yields require higher feed intakes, so to avoid the added production being ‘vanity litres’ it is important to pay attention to Margin over Purchase Food (MOPF) he explains. “This figure, which is provided by ForFarmers account managers as part of their regular costings service, is what drives return on investment. With energy and depreciation costs being higher in robotic systems it is crucial to pay attention to it to ensure you remain profitable.”

Across all milking systems Milk from Forage (MFF), use of co-products and age at first calving are key drivers of business performance, he adds. “Our top 10% performing MOPF herds averaged 3,400 litres of Milk From Forage in 2022 and achieve first calving at 24 to 26 months.”

Technical manager Philip Ambler adds: “Feed accounts for 24% of total costs so is the single biggest expense for dairy farms.” However it is important not to forget other costs too. “Significant savings can be made elsewhere as well.” He encourages farmers to consider productivity rather than profitability. “Productivity is how effective a business is at converting physical inputs into outputs. Feed Conversion Efficiency (FCE) is a really useful indicator to highlight how efficiently feed is being converted into milk in the tank.”

Robotic Focus Philip Andy and Bas 2

For robotic herds he advocates use of ForFarmers Robot Analysis Programme (RAP). “It allows you to look into the robots and see where the profit is.” For example it highlights the cows that fall either side of the best performing curve and identifies what needs to happen to enable them to perform better.

The RAP also allows businesses to look at the relationship between key performance indicators and the impact they will have on their bottom line. “For example, the number of visits to the robot per day and overall output. Can we allow different access times for different animals to boost production across the herd? Re-mapping can tailor the system even more to suit individual animals and allow us to push productivity further.”

Planning a robotic system

There is much to consider when planning an automated system so the first place to start is with your own goals, explains Bas van Santen, UK Robotics Performance Manager. “No farm is the same – management and labour is different for every business.” Farmers are driven by different goals too whether that is overall production, Return on Investment, reaching cows’ genetic potential or profit.”

Bas advises those planning a robotic system to visit as many units as possible. “See different layouts and ask questions including what they would do differently if they did it again.

Whatever your goal it’s important to remember that yields don’t come from fresh airfeed, access to water and number of milkings all play a part. Cows need 4-5kg of water per kg of milk they produce, so access to water troughs is just as important as feed space.”

Cow flow through the building needs careful thought and planning, he says. “Avoid dead ends in your building for cows getting to feed, water and the robots. When to eat, drink and be milked should be the cow’s own choice with minimal interference from people or gates.

“Also think about labour flow. If you have robots at opposite ends of the shed people will spend a lot of time walking between them.”

Once a system is up and running use of the RAP via your ForFarmers account manager is essential, he says. Robots cost the same to run regardless of how much milk they are responsible for. “The RAP can help you fine tune your system and optimise the milk from the machine.

It allows us to analyse data from six different robot manufacturers. We can look at each stage of lactation to find areas for improvement and identify any pitfalls in your system and where improvements can be made to help you reach your goals.”

Robotic Analysis programme cropped

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