This article was originally published in Progressive Dairyman on March 31, 2016
As technology races on at a dizzying pace, tools are introduced to the dairy industry with the promise of helping improve productivity. Robotic milking is one such technology that promises a wide range of benefits.
Although these benefits are achievable, it is sometimes forgotten that humans still reign supreme in making the decisions that have the greatest impact on herd management.
The brain behind any robotic milker is software that processes milking data. Dairies that utilize integrated robotic solutions have the potential to compile information from several data points. Although software excels at processing these large amounts of information, it cannot duplicate the instincts good producers develop over time.
We are born with the ability to collect information about the world around us, and we make choices on how to act on our external surroundings. Although technology is a time-saver for many tasks, and can definitely help manage by exception, it still cannot replace the human touch all dairies need to some extent.
Using our senses
The first gut instinct, based on input from our senses, often contains a multitude of vital information. What does this have to do with robotics? While routine maintenance timelines are essential and should be followed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations, a general familiarity with the robot should aid if anything unexpected arises.
Herd management software provides indicators of general robot functionality and notifications of routine maintenance. Complementing this data with the information gathered by four of the five senses (we usually do not use taste in this instance) offers crucial insight into the barn and robot room.
Sight – In addition to using sight to review herd performance and robot statistics, it provides honest answers to questions about the environment’s cleanliness. For example, are all cow contact points clean?
Is the barn clean, and how does this impact the cow’s hygiene when she enters the robot? Sight will also confirm that all of the parts on the robot are moving smoothly and functioning properly.
It will show how the robot interacts with the cow as the cow milks. Visually inspecting cleaning chemical barrels helps monitor their volume and marking their level on a weekly basis easily illustrates usage levels.
Sound – When steps in the milking process are taking place, from teat cleaning to attachment to milking, post-milking and cleaning, sound offers insights into the robot’s functionality. These observations provide several indications of air, vacuum and basic functioning of the equipment.
All of these noises should be familiar if the robot is maintained on a daily basis. The more a producer is familiar with how a properly maintained robot functions, the faster it is to identify when an issue arises.
In addition, the list of notifications should be reviewed daily to provide more insight into how the robot is functioning. A proper manual should provide guidance to the possible cause for the notification – and contact the certified robotic technician if needed.
Smell – Certain smells around a farm are very familiar, such as well-fermented forages, poorly fermented forages, a ketotic cow or a retained placenta. Smells can also play a role in maintaining robots by alerting the operator to moldy pellets.
Smell also alerts to spoiled milk residues or manure in the robot station that might need cleaning. Ventilation that is not circulating clean fresh air is another smell that requires a producer’s attention.
Touch – When moving the robotic parts in safe mode, tension alerts us to areas that need tightening. When you take time to examine the liners and other parts that come in contact with the cows, you may be provided with an opportunity to make changes before issues arise with respect to milk quality and cow comfort.
Routine monitoring of the liners and teat cleaner have the additional benefit of detecting liner wear before routine maintenance. If this occurs, it is worth discussing with your dealership if cleaning settings should be adjusted to avoid overwearing of parts or if another liner would be more suitable for the herd.
Feeling and evaluating skin during routine teat-end scoring can also provide feedback for adjusting the robot’s settings or applying a different teat disinfectant with the varying seasons.
Using common sense
Along with using our senses, clear direction concerning job descriptions and standard operating procedures should always come into play. A laminated list of daily, weekly and monthly tasks should be placed where your eye can routinely review them.
Starting robotic milking brings producers into a new world, but if they can maintain familiar aspects in their daily work, it will help bridge the gap until robot and herd management software become routine.
Robots are not a panacea to cure all ills and, at times, can make problems on a dairy become more pronounced. For example, a farm that does not have defined standard operating procedures, or one that does not take them seriously, could have all of their efforts undermined once a robot comes online. When this happens, any labor savings start to erode as the dairy scrambles to get organized.
Hardware or software should never remove us from daily physical interactions with the equipment and animals. Even days with minimal interaction, such as holidays and Sundays, still require someone to walk through the barn at least twice. Farm-monitoring cameras are great tools to replace frequent visits without compromising farm management.
Whatever a producer defines as a priority, including improved herd health, increased productivity or enhanced milk quality, integrated robotic milking technology should complement and enhance it. However, there is no substitute for the knowledge and intuition of the producer, dairy advisers, veterinarians and others that add a human touch.