Contrary to popular belief, milking robots will work in many existing barns. If building a new barn from scratch isn't an appealing or realistic option for your operation, retrofitting the existing structure to accommodate the robots may be the answer.
"Retrofits are viable because cows have shown that they are comfortable visiting the robots in many different layouts and configurations," explains Austin Day, Dairy XL Sales Specialist for Lely North America.
In fact, retrofit barns are extremely common in all sizes of operations.
"If we were to poll the existing Lely Red Cow Community members, we would find that close to 50 percent of them have retrofitted Lely robots into their existing freestall barns," says Preston Vincent, Lely's Dairy XL Development Manager. "These retrofit dairies have shown many that their good, sound freestall barns can still be utilized for many more years to come."
Designing your barn layout with the cow in mind creates a calm and stress-free environment that is conducive to cow health and well-being. Because cows produce best when operating on their own “natural biorhythm,” it is essential to provide a free cow flow system that mimics that rhythm.
"Cow flow throughout the barn and especially in front of the robot are key to ensuring every cow is visiting the robot," said Day. "Any added obstacles that a cow must navigate to get to the robot will only discourage visits from certain animals, typically more timid cows. Cows do not need additional motivation or need to be forced to the robots as long as there is a clear and stress-free path to the robots."
In order to ensure your barn layout is optimized for cow traffic to the robot(s), here are nine checkpoints you can use to evaluate your robot barn design.
- Are there sufficient distances at the exit/entrance of the robot(s)?
Along with being comfortable during the actual milking process, cows need to enjoy the experience of entering and exiting a robot. A big component of that comfort is giving them plenty of room. A good rule of thumb is a minimum space of 15 feet from the robot to the first obstacle in front of the robot. This will allow even a timid, low-ranking cow the opportunity to enjoy her robot experience.
- What manure and stall management (scraping, slats and etc.) plans are in place?
Keeping alleys and cross alleys clean, as well as maintaining clean and dry beds, will certainly go a long way toward maintaining a healthy herd with high milk-quality standards. Labor needed to support manure and stall management is also something to consider and discuss in the barn-design phase.
- Can you group cows without disrupting social hierarchy?
The best results in labor and milk production are achieved on farms where cows remain in the same social group throughout their complete lactation. Cows feel comfortable standing in a Lely robot because of the additional space and configuration of the I-flow stall that allows them to remain part of the herd.
- How will you move cows into and out of pens or groups?
Safe and efficient cow flow is a must when considering your barn layout. This may mean utilizing gates, cow alleys, cross alleys, etc. Think about how a cow will enter into a group from the calving area and then how she will be moved into the dry cow pen once lactation is complete. This can save time later and help prevent stress for both the cows and people.
- Are there plenty of water troughs?
Installing water troughs along the route cows use to and from the robot is always a good thing. Easy access with plenty of space around the water trough will encourage the cows to drink as much as they please while not disrupting the path of other cows coming and going to the milking robot.
- How will you find and treat cows?
Make sure it is easy for a cow to enter a separation pen from the robot when a cow needs to be treated. Access to feed and water is always a good thing once the cow is in a separation pen. Once the cow is treated, make sure it is a one-person job to return the cow to the general population with as little disruption to other cows as possible. In the event an overnight stay is needed, give careful consideration to how cow flow will take place from the separation pen to the milking robot and back.
- Where do you want the foot bath positioned?
Cows with healthy hooves feel good and will be more productive. Most foot baths are installed away from the robots and many choose to install them in a crosswalk opposite of where the robots are installed. This will lead to limited disturbance around the robot when it is time to utilize the foot bath. However, foot baths can be installed in various places in the barn, depending on your barn layout.
- Is there sufficient ventilation in the barn (mechanical / natural)?
Having a healthy herd and achieving production goals are closely related to barns that have decent fresh air movement. Sufficient fresh air is necessary for the removal of humidity and body heat.
- Is there clean and safe access to the robot room?
Walking through a manure-filled cow alley on your way into the robot room is strongly discouraged. Keeping a clean robot room is important for maintaining a healthy environment for desirable milk quality. Installing boot washers by all doors leading into or out of a robot room is a great way to help maintaining a clean robot room.
At Lely, we highly recommend that producers tour as many robot dairies as they can during the planning process. It does not matter which brand of automatic milking system a barn uses, the touring will provide insight on the pros and cons of different designs and assist you in determining the best fit for you and your cows.