Robot vs. Parlor: Looking ahead and further
In the midst of growing interest in robotic milking in Minnesota and neighboring states, UMN Dairy Extension is developing a Robot vs. Parlor comparison tool. With the support of a USDA-North Central Risk Management Education grant we will provide a web application tool and educational seminars starting this fall. In April 2016, a focus group met with three robot users and three lenders to collect initial input.
The basic component of the tool is live at http://z.umn.edu/RobotParlor. We would appreciate your comments and feedback.
One challenge we are working on is how to select values for the default settings that are neither biased for nor against robots. Research on this area is extremely scarce, and any numbers we pick would inevitably be crude for now and require revisions in the future. However, the numbers we select (after much debate) are a small part of the picture. The most important factors are those that relate to your management of your dairy under each milking system. You also want to make sure that the analyses fit your vision for your farm, family, and lifestyle.
Our role is to help you make the best use of that information through our tools, seminars, fact sheets, and consultations. We suggest you consider anticipated differences between robot and parlor systems in three areas: operations, finances, and economics.
If you were switching to robots, how would you restructure your workflow? While the tasks – housing, feeding, caring, and milking cows as well as improving and expanding the herd – remain basically the same, you may need to adjust how you allocate your time and resources. You will need to identify new patterns of workflow that best fit cows’ voluntary milking cycles and that are compatible with emerging technologies such as various sensors and monitoring systems.
On-farm data analyses are still relatively new in the industry but are going to improve rapidly, so you want to be prepared for a data-driven decision-support system that would allow you to manage lactation, feeding, reproduction, and veterinary care all in an integrated manner.
Robotic milkers are not necessarily more expensive than parlors, but the supplemental upgrades of the barn tend to be highly capital intensive. The upgrades typically include a custom-designed floor plan for uninterrupted, voluntary or guided animal movement and optionally an automated manure handling system.
At the 120-cow scale, our estimate shows that the total cost of the barn and milking system is about three-quarters of a million dollars higher for robots than for parlors. This implies that the total investment with robots is roughly $56k/year higher over a 30-year time horizon, of which an equivalent of about $25k/year may be offset through tax savings.
The higher cost of investment, plus additional expenses like supplemental pellets and maintenance cost after warranty must be countered by increased milk production and decreased labor expense. That depends on your ability to manage milk production and adapt to ever-more capital-intensive dairy farming. To be able to justify the choice of robots over parlors, one would have to have a modest advantage in milk yield for robots.
Currently there is no evidence that farms with robots make more milk than farms with parlors. Even though the physical process of harvesting milk is not different between the two systems, milking frequency can be optimized for each animal for each stage of lactation through different ways of tracking, fetching, and feeding animals. On the other hand, choosing robots over parlors may be justified by a reduction of one full-time employee alone if the producer places relatively high value on reducing labor management and increasing the flexibility of the work schedule.
The hardest question is: Under which milking system will you be a more effective dairy farm manager?
Without a competent manager, no dairy will be able to survive for long. The fact is that large-scale dairies have been rapidly appearing and expanding. As dairy production becomes increasingly scalable, economic returns to the management per unit of milk will continue to shrink. Meanwhile, tactical decisions to integrate appropriate techniques into operations will become ever more important, regardless of the farm size.
Historical prices of milk, feed, and labor
The point of this exercise is to focus on the long-term trends in prices in the past two decades (labeled “Trend” in Figure 1) and think of their counterparts in the next two decades. The prices may become more volatile and unpredictable than what they used to be. Then again, maybe not – in the long run, the future is equitably uncertain.
Whether choosing robots or parlors, if you decide to stay in for the next decades you have to have the right mindset and (once again) make the right calls. Having a renewed commitment to success is perhaps the most crucial ingredient: stay hungry, optimistic, and outgoing like a starter farmer.
Source: USDA Quick Stat.