Automatic Milking Systems, How Are They Doing?
Posted: August 5, 2004
Automatic Milking Systems (AMS, robots) are reliable and dependable at attaching milking machines to cows with no direct human oversight or intervention. To be successful, this technology must be part of an integrated system that takes advantage of the positive attributes and accommodates the negative characteristics of automation. A better understanding of their use with TMR feeding and larger herds, cost considerations and modifications to satisfy our milk quality regulations are the primary obstacles to wider adoption in the US.
Experts from Europe, Canada and the US shared research results, field observations and opinions on the status and future of automatic milking at a recent meeting of the American Society of Agricultural Engineers. You can visit the ASAE web site www.asae.org to learn how to view copies of the papers presented. About 80% of the over 2200 farms worldwide with AMS are in northwestern Europe. A coordinated study of AMS by the European Union countries has resulted in a large amount of research and field observations that can be viewed at www.automaticmilking.nl. No major change in cow health can be attributed to the automatic milking. Some farms have had an increase in locomotion problems but this is believed to be related to reduced access to pasture on some farms. Many farms are learning how to integrate access to pasture with AMS. Kees de Koning from The Netherlands identified several key factors of
a successful implementation of this technology: realistic expectations; good support by skilled consultants before, during and after implementation; flexibility and discipline to control the system and the cows; ability to work with computers; attention to the barn layout and cow traffic; good technical functioning of the AM-system including regular maintenance; and healthy cows with good feet and “aggressive” eating behavior.
Canada is the primary home to AMS in North America with a few systems installed in several US states including Pennsylvania. Jack Rodenberg of Ontario reported on housing considerations especially as relates to larger herds, placement of multiple milking units and utilization with TMR feeding. Determining if and how this technology can be applied to larger herds and also integrated into TMR feeding will likely occur on North American dairy farms.
Recent changes to the US FDA PMO (Pasteurized Milk Ordinance) that permits use of AMS in the US were discussed by Dan Scruton, Vermont Agency of Agriculture, Food and Markets. Two new definitions have been added to the PMO to accommodate these systems. One was a definition of automatic milking; The term automatic milking installation covers the entire installation of one (1) of more automatic milking units, including the hardware and software utilized in the operation of individual automatic milking units, the animal selection system, the automatic milking machine, milk cooling system, the system for cleaning and sanitizing the automatic milking unit, the teat cleaning system, and alarm systems associated with the process of milking, cooling, cleaning and sanitation.
The other addition was a definition of clean: Direct product contact surfaces that have had the effective and thorough removal of product and/or contaminants.
Appendix Q was added to aid in interpreting the PMO and its relationship to automatic milking and inspection of farms with these systems. This section covers items such as abnormal milk (1r), aspects of construction and cleanliness of milking barns (2r & 3r), utensils and equipment (9r, 10r, 11r & 12r), cows (13r), protection from contamination (14r) and raw milk cooling (18r).
There has been concern that a double standard would be created that held AMS to higher standards. It is felt that these changes require AMS to meet the same rules and standards as more conventional milking systems. US requirements for on farm milking handling and equipment installation are different, and perceived as more strict, than those in Europe so manufacturers must make modifications to allow use in the US.
All speakers emphasized the need for clean, healthy and motivated cows. To engineers this sounds a lot like what we have been preaching for years concerning cow comfort and how to provide for it in barn design, construction and management. Harold House an agricultural engineer with the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture indicated that the three most important cow comfort considerations were lameness, cleanliness and ventilation. Cows who are not motivated to get up and walk to eat or drink because of lameness or not feeling well will not likely visit the robot. He observed that cow comfort considerations were the same for AMS as conventional milking systems but, deficiencies in comfort will show up quicker and cause more problems sooner in a robotic milking barn.
This session confirmed that AMS are able to produce high quality milk. Cost considerations and a better understanding of their use under our conditions is the primary obstacle to wider adoption in the US.
Robert E. Graves, Agricultural, Biological, and Engineering Extension