By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
If all his dairy cows were under one roof, a rotary parlour would have been Ron Groen’s first option but with two barns on the go, cost considerations made him choose robotic milkers.
“For us, it was about cost,” said Groen. “A state-of-the-art parlour versus robots and with separate locations, robots were the cheaper investment.”
Groen was part of a four-person panel discussing the past, present and future of robotic milking systems in a wide-ranging discussion that focused on cost, management styles and breeding choices. It took place at Grey Bruce Farmers Week held in Elmwood in January. One panelist said he decided to get rid of robots and get back to parlour milking.
“I do not regret installing robots as a 13-year experiment but I am so relieved we made the switch back to a parlour,” said Korb Whale, owner of Clovermead Farms near Alma. “In the three years we have run our parlour, our cow longevity has increased by a year and a half. We milk three times a day and our production went up 30 per cent.”
However, he has installed robotic milkers in his other barn! Each barn and management style requires different milking systems, he believes.
First, a little history on each dairy farmer in the panel:
● Korb Whale, Clovermead Farms and Mapleton Organic: Whale works with his wife, parents, four full-time and four part-time employees. Robots were installed in 2007 before being removed for a new parlour in 2022 to milk 160 cows producing a 35 litre average. An on-farm biodigester repurposes manure and other material into bedding. Cattle are fed twice a day with feed pushed in eight times a day.
● Ron Groen, Eastlink Dairy/Dalvis Farms, Teeswater: Groen farms with his parents and 12 employees, milking 550 cows on two farms. They use 12 GEO Monobox robots and have a guided flow barn feeding dried distillers and robot pellets in the robots along with a glycerol pellet to early lactation cows. Cows are fed twice a day with five times per day feed push-ups. Milk production averages 37 litres per cow.
● Jon Wiley, Fairmount Farms, Meaford: Farming with his parents, Brian and Trudi, Wiley installed a robotic milker in a remodeled bank barn to milk 53 cows. Milk production average is 37 litres per cow. He also uses an automatic Lely calf feeder.
● Carolin Turner: Classification field services with Holstein Canada.
Turner started off the discussion saying at the current rate, 50 per cent of dairy cattle in Canada will be milked in robots by the year 2040.
“Bruce County has 40 robot herds and Grey has 28, which is one in every five dairy herds,” she said. As a classifier, when looking at dairy cows for robotics, she likes to see excellent locomotion, udder depth and rear leg side view scores. “We are getting legs that are too straight and those cows have a harder time moving and their location isn’t as good, plus they struggle to get up and down,” said Turner.
She also looks at longevity in cows because the most profitable cows are ones who reach their third lactation or higher. High locomotion scores are a good predictor for longevity in cows.
Teat length is another valuable trait for dairy cattle milked by robots “That two-inch mark is ideal,” said Turner. “If they are shorter, it’s harder for the milking system to stay attached and if they are too long, it affects how robots can attach and there is risk for that teat to double up.” Hand in hand with length is teat placement because teats that are too close together also cause attachment problems.
Cows who adapt better to robots are also cows that do well in any milking system, but characteristics include functional feet and legs, milk speed, temperament and mastitis resistance. In the future, she hopes bull proofs will include a specific robot index. Currently, bulls that sire daughters ideal for robotic milking are called Robot Ready.
Whale said it’s their goal to keep older cows. Cattle get bred twice to dairy genetics and if they don’t catch, are bred beef. Heifers are bred using sexed semen. The Pro$ label is something he looks for as well as Immunity+. “I’m not doing anything really interesting. We just put heavier weight on health, feet and legs and a high-fertility bull.”
Groen had a lot of extra heifers in recent years so they revised their breeding program. Every heifer with a mother or grandmother who produced 12,000 litres of milk or more received sexed semen and everything else is bred beef. He is not interested in really large cattle so he watches for stature and chooses for feet and legs. “We want her to move around and live a longtime.”
Wiley breeds all his cows to Robot Ready semen and keeps a clean-up bull in the herd for the heifers. He admits he takes a “bit of a hit” on not breeding his heifers with top genetics but said heifers are often difficult to breed and his top goal is getting them pregnant and into the milking herd. “Easy calving is also a big one for me.”
Putting robots in the barn in 2007 was supposed to save time, input costs and increase milk production. “Over the 13 years we had them, we achieved none of those things,” admitted Whale. “We had the same number of staff, bought more feed than ever before and repair and maintenance costs were high.” However, he realizes he had an earlier version of robotic technology and believes in the end, that he was the problem. “I am the only full-time person on the farm and I couldn’t convince anyone else to take weekend calls so I was on call for 13 years.” Whale said it wasn’t sustainable so he replaced the robots with a parlour.
When an aging parlour needed updating, the Groen family compared the price of a double-16 parlour, complete with 32 milk metres, a new structure and new crowd gates. Then when the family purchased another farm in Sterling, those predicted costs doubled. So they chose robots as a more cost-efficient option.
Wiley said when they added the robot in 2013, he was the father of two young kids. “I wanted to coach hockey and baseball and needed more freedom to go places and do things. Robots work well for us.”
Being short on haylage year after year led Wiley to tear down two existing silos and put up bigger ones to ensure he had enough haylage for his dairy herd. He has grown oats as a cover crop and fed it to the heifers but doesn’t like to dabble with cover crops in the cow ration.
However, Groen says they feed primarily corn silage because “picking stones in the alfalfa field sucks.” Also, timing the proper harvest date for alfalfa is challenging. “Corn silage is easy to grow and you can chop it all up in one day. We do harvest haylage but we like to feed as much corn silage as possible.”
Whale was a happy medium, feeding a 50-50 hay and corn ration because he likes to use cover crops in the ration. “We have lots of forage in the spring from the cover crops as we are experimenting with perennial rye grass after wheat. There is a lot of energy in that grass.” He wants to use as many cover crops in the ration as possible because they are so plentiful.
Whale said he doesn’t make a lot of use of data from the farm he does collect and uses data from Lactanet in the parlour.
Groen felt the $7,500 price tag for milk recording in 2018 was not worth the value it provided the farm so his family quit collecting milk recording data back then.
Wiley used to use Dairy Herd Improvement services but when he installed the robot, he used data collected by the machine for management decisions. He specifically uses the somatic cell count numbers it provides.
In terms of the cattle, Wiley said he felt the whole herd “got friendlier and personal with humans.” No matter who walks in the barn, the cows will come up to them out of curiosity.
Groen said he culls heavily for temperament. “If we have a bad cow we look at mom and daughters and usually every daughter goes on the truck. We will take the whole family line out because we can’t have cows that kick the robot the whole time.”
When asked what option or service each farmer loved or wished they had, Groen replied that he really loves the manual attachment on the robots. “If I have incentive days I need to fill, I can milk some cows for another five weeks,” he said. Groen also enjoys having the robot do all the pre- and post-udder care, especially teat dipping.
Whale said when he had robots, he also used the manual attachment and somatic cell counter.
Wiley repeated that the SCC counter is a “big tool” on his farm and he also had a weigh scale option but isn’t using it as much as he could.
What works for you
Ultimately, choosing robots or parlour depends on whatever management system suits the people and the place. From a cow’s perspective, Turner believes the best cows will suit all environments and believes breeding for a cow that is functional. “Wiley mentioned picking only robot-ready bulls, but maybe all bulls should be robot ready,” she said. ◊