Building today with robots in mind for the future
Is your dairy farm ready to take the next step to grow in size, but you aren’t quite ready to grow with today’s robotic technology? There are a multitude of robotic options available today, and many more to come.
With that in mind, you should plan your building projects to be functional today but also adaptable to future technological advancements.
Robotics have been and will continue to be a hot topic in the coming years due to the uncertainty of an adequate supply of available workers. People are also becoming less willing to work in a physical environment. Working for a construction company myself, we too are finding it harder to find employees who want to have a career which includes physical labor.
Is it possible to build a facility today while incorporating some major necessities of a robot barn for down the road? Yes, it is possible. One thing you will want to narrow down now before the design phase starts is which route of robotic milking you would like to take in the future. The two options available today are individual milking units or a full-scale robotic parlor.
I commonly see dairy producers who plan to max out at under 500 milking cows leaning toward individual milking units. If the producer plans to be above 500 cows, the robotic parlor gets more consideration. However, that isn’t a hard-and-fast rule.
This past winter, I toured the construction site of the future robotic facility of Homestead Dairy in Indiana, which is now operating 24 individual robot units under one roof, with the intent of doubling in size.
If individual milking units are your choice, keep in mind you will probably always grow your herd in groups of approximately 60 cows for maximum efficiency. If your future plan is to exceed 500 milking cows, you may want to weigh both options. Preference, economics and management all play into which route will best suit you.
Planning for individual robotic milking units
If you are building a freestall barn now with the idea of someday installing individual automated milking system boxes, additional planning on the front end is necessary. Involve the milking equipment company in the design process. They can assist with the layout to support cow flow and ease the future conversion.
In my observations, I see free-flow robot units on the outside of the barns, whereas forced-flow robots are more centrally located in the barns. This means you should consider plumbing and electrical placements for the future changes.
You should also consider your complete service system up-front as well. If you are bringing in three-phase electrical, the location of your main hub may work better in a different area in a robot barn. You will want to make sure your chosen manure system is compatible with the layout of the robotic facility.
It may be as simple as a few small tweaks in your barn layout now, which may make everything financially cost-effective down the road.
Planning for a robotic milking parlor
If your facility needs a parlor update or upgrade, but robots just are not in the cards for you right now, there are definitely a few ways of planning for them in the future. Robotic parlors are just making their entrance to the U.S. market. In the rotary robot, each milking unit is a single station.
With herd sizes over 500, the rotary parlor may be the most efficient by milking between 28 and 80 cows on the platform at one time, or 120 to 400 cows per hour. This type of setup requires only one operator at all times to oversee the milking process.
One customer we recently worked with on a parallel parlor construction made planning for the future transition to a rotary parlor a priority. The parlor is designed large enough to accommodate a rotary parlor in the future.
The parlor’s sidewalls consist of overhead doors which will allow for adequate ventilation for a rotary parlor. The subway was designed deep enough to allow for a rotary as well.
Of course, to make this transition someday from the parallel parlor to the rotary parlor will not be a simple, clean-cut swap of equipment. There will still need to be a lot of work in remodeling and concrete removal, but by doing some of the planning up-front, it allows for the option down the road.
Other robotics and automation
As the labor force becomes more scarce, and the demand for continued growth on the farm continues, producers will need to rely on robotics and automation even more as the years go by. At some point, depending on technology will no longer be an option but a necessity.
Simple robotic and automated add-ons such as feed pushers and automated ventilation systems pay great dividends, adding to your bottom line.
Another area of robotics and automation lies within raising youngstock. Opinions on group calf housing differ, but as the workforce becomes more scarce and dairy facilities continue to grow larger, group housing may be the most economical way to go.
Robotics are just a small portion of some of the exciting things we have seen in our industry. When it is time for you to take the next step in your building process, consider if you will be incorporating robots into the overall plans for the future. If so, seek the professional opinions of those around you before starting to build.
Robotics and automation are only the beginning of the future advances in technology in the agriculture industry.