Planning for Scalable, Sustainable Growth with Robotic Milking

By Jeff Prashaw, AIA, Project Design Manager

Higher milk production and lower labor costs are among the more talked-about outcomes of robotic milking, but another important benefit is the scalability the robots enable.

Let’s explore the possibilities within the context of a real design that was planned to leverage the scalability of robots.

Design summary:

  • (9) distinct buildings with (6) robots in each building for a total of (54) or approximately 3,700 cows
  • (3) phases planned
  • Guided milk first cow flow
  • 1 milk collection point

For this project, we first established how many cows in total were to be milked by robots. Then, together with the dairy, we determined how many cows would be added and at what intervals. In this case, there were to be three phases spread out over seven years. So, 30 robots by 2020, an additional 12 robots in 2023, then the final 12 robots in 2026.

Building planning

After setting the goals and expectations, the planning process began. At this point the team had a strong urge to figure out the size of the robot modules and where in the building(s) they were to be located. But there was a driver, or interdependency, that was most certainly going to dictate final layout, which was the pre-selected site.

The chosen site had excellent prevailing westerly winds and little in the way of limitations with respect to topography, natural or manmade obstructions, easements, setbacks, or other factors dictating size of the final design. We chose more buildings over one or two large buildings so we could take advantage of the winds for natural ventilation. That approach also supports the three-phase growth plan and flexibility to alter that plan going forward. That flexibility will come at a price; the greater amount of land that comes with more buildings, but in this case that value was of strategic importance to the producer.

Designing the robot modules

Now that growth plans and site considerations had implied likely building style, we could begin planning the robot modules. We knew that we would be using three robots for each group of about 210 cows. Another given is the dairy would implement a milk sampler that allows six robots per sampler system.

Initially, it was determined there would be 12 robots in each module so we could centralize mechanical, electrical, and plumbing runs. However, when we started running simulations of work routines such as moving cows and people walking from building to building, chemical and teat dip delivery, and dump milk collection, we saw the need to add a central transfer lane as a connector, protected from the outdoor elements. After drawing the concept and running some rough construction cost versus labor savings numbers, we found it was feasible to add the connector. That meant we needed to divide the robot clusters into modules of six, rather than 12.

Finalizing the overall farm master plan

Now we had established the best path forward was to plan for nine buildings of six robots. The next step is to arrange the buildings.  We knew the milk collection point would be centralized and sized in a location that could support all 54 robots within current milk transport and cleaning solutions. We also knew the buildings would be as close together as possible while still allowing prevailing winds to ventilate.

After adding the connector, here is how it all came together in the master plan.

Click the photo for an expanded view.

We, of course, looked at manure handling, and in this case, a flush system was pre-determined. The water delivery follows the connector, and the valves releasing water into the alleys are centralized at the robots. In flush barns, it is ideal to flush away from the robot area so the dirtiest water is far from the milking area.

The milk house and five buildings containing six robots each would be constructed first, for a total of 30 robots. Then, if phase two comes to fruition, two buildings with six robots would be added to one side and phase three would add the final two buildings of six robots to the other side.

Utilizing existing milking systems

At this point the major decisions had been made and we could pull together the other details that will fit inside that “box.” But what to do with the existing milking system the robots are replacing? One option is to keep the conventional parlor in use to milk fresh, treated and special needs cows, thereby freeing up the robots to milk their wet herd. This choice is a big part of the planning process and a driver for the final layout of the robot facility.

Planning dairies has always been challenging and rewarding but adding robots to the mix makes it even more interesting. The scalability factor of single-stall robots must be weighed with the future growth prospects of each dairy. With this complete approach, and working with a planning and design professional, farms can be assured they will have an effective, flexible layout that works with the unique goals of their herd.

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