Retrofit or Build New: 5 Factors to Help You Decide

Jeff Prashaw, DeLaval Architect and Project Design Manager

One of the first questions we’re asked by dairy farmers interested in DeLaval VMS™ milking systems is: Can I retrofit my existing barn(s) or do I need to build new?

Finding the answer begins with a serious exploration of milk production and labour efficiency goals, preferred cow flow, future growth plans and existing conditions.

  1. Milk production goals. Not all dairies aim to average over 100 lbs. per cow per day, but those who are looking for large percentage gains must carefully analyse existing conditions. For example, it will be extremely challenging to consistently attain necessary dry matter intake levels to support high performance if each cow is allotted less than 12 inches of space at the feed bunk. Not one aspect of the existing layout escapes a hard look in this case.

  2. Labour. VMS robots can be a major factor leading to improved labour productivity, but only if the facility supports it. If you choose free cow traffic, then labour input for fetching cows that are overdue to be milked can vary widely. Notably, when there is no room for a fetch pen, cow groups are large, or alleys and crossovers are narrow.

  3. Preferred cow flow. Often the analysis stops at cow flow choice. Guided flow can be an attractive option as typically little to no fetching is needed and less grain can be delivered in the VMS. However, sort gates before and after the robot which allow for recommended clearances to reduce or eliminate the negative effects of congestion are only possible when removing cow beds. Learn more about cow traffic in a retrofitted barn here.

  4. Future growth plans. If your dairy intends to add more cows in the future, as often is the case, then planning for an expansion is necessary. Ask yourself these questions about your current facility:
    • Can more robots be reasonably added and in a modular fashion?
    • Will there be a need for a second milk collection point?
    • What, if any, setbacks, easements, regulations, laws, geographic features, or other limiting factors may come into play?
    • How will we dairy in the future, both from a general industry and specific operation standpoint?
  5. Existing conditions. Assuming the building doesn’t present a health, safety, or welfare hazard for man or animal – in which case rebuilding is a must – you should consider its general functionality as cow housing and as a robot facility. For cow housing, we are focused on cow comfort and the fact that in a robot barn cows are now always in their pens. Performance of current environment, ventilation, feed bunk, bed count and size, alley widths, and manure handling are all important to evaluate. Turning to robot facility criteria, it is important to consider things such as proximity of robots to cow beds, feed bunk, and milk collection point. In most cases, clean and easy access to robots ranks high on the must-have list.

Certainly, the list goes on, but in our experience working with hundreds of new and retrofitted VMS barns, these considerations should be at the top of your list when deciding what’s best for your farm and family.

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