Much has changed since the days when most cows were milked in small tiestall barns with bucket milkers and step savers. Milking in those barns was back-breaking, knee-grinding work. Expansion was next to impossible, which meant producers couldn’t afford to hire help and had to be in the barn a minimum of twice a day, 365 days per year. While there are still some farmers that prefer tiestall barns, which are much more progressive than they were back then, most farms moved toward parlors in the name of efficiency and expansion. Today, the majority of cows in the U.S. are milked in technology-rich parlors and a growing number, roughly 5%, are milked with robots.
While the drive toward larger herds and greater efficiency drove the development of large parlor systems in the U.S., dairies in Europe, which were under a quota system, could not pursue this same path so they pushed forward with an emphasis on technology.
“As the dairies in the U.S. were focusing on efficiencies, the dairies in Europe were focusing on automation,” says Francisco Rodriguez, North America integrated robotics manager for DeLaval. “In these small, family operations, lifestyle was a big driver of adoption of robots.”
This focus drove the development of robot technology in Europe, with Canada to follow in the late 1990s. Adoption made its way south across the border to the U.S. shortly after.
TESTING THE POTENTIAL
In 2002, Mason Dixon Farms in Pennsylvania became the second dairy in the U.S. to install a robot to milk their cows. At the time, they were milking 1,800 cows and installed one BouMatic robot to learn as much as they could about the budding technology.
“We used that robot for two years, learning as much as we could,” says Doyle Waybright, owner of Mason Dixon Farms. “We had attached it to an older cow barn and tried lots of different layouts, trying to get familiar with this idea and new way of milking cows called robotics.”
The majority of the early installations in the U.S. were on smaller dairies, much like the adoption of the technology in Europe and Canada. However, Mason Dixon was an exception ;Waybright valued the promise of a better lifestyle and reduced labor costs.
Mason Dixon was the first dairy to see the potential for robot use in large commercial operations,” Rodriquez says.
In 2005, Waybright replaced the BouMatic robot with a new barn housing 10 DeLaval robots. Four years later, he added 10 more for a total of 20 robots milking just over 1,800 cows. Later in 2009, Waybright updated the 2005 models with 2009 units so all robots on the farm were the same model.