Difficulties in finding and retaining skilled labor and the demand for efficiency and individual cow control is making robotic milking an attractive option for Mexico’s dairy farmers. Juan García’s farm La Conchita is the only robotic milking farm in operation in Mexico right now, but Juan and his business partner Hector Muñoz, who is also the farm’s veterinarian, expect more farms will follow as the technology is introduced and the benefits of the system are demonstrated.
Juan Garcia’s father was retiring and the sons were taking over the business. The family had been milking 500 cows in a Herringbone parlour at a rented farm, and the father wanted to invest in a new place and a new milking system. Having recently seen a milking robot in operation in Spain, he thought this could be interesting to his sons, and suggested they had a look at this technology. Juan García visited a robotic dairy farm in Pamplona and he liked what he saw, a well organized farm with four DeLaval VMS robots, high production and low incidence of mastitis.
“When I saw this robotic milking farm I realized that this was the system of the future”, says Juan.
He returned home and started investigating and planning. Robotic milking was still largely unknown in Mexico, but Juan wanted to venture into this new technology with all the benefits it promised, such as individual milking and feeding, no fetching cows, low somatic cell count and individual control of his cows. More visits to automatic milking farms in Europe followed, and finally, in 2005, Juan started milking cows with four VMS robots at the new farm, La Conchita, in the Mexican state of Querétaro.
Milking on the increase
The capacity of the VMS milking robot gives you the option of either milking 90 medium level producing cows or 65 high producing cows per robot. At La Conchita they are aiming for the high production option, currently milking 400 cows in 7 VMS. The eighth VMS will be installed soon.
The production is 28 litres/cow /day and average number of milkings per day is 2.4. Juan is not satisfied with this level of production. He has been working with a cross-breed of Holsteins and Swedish Red, and the strategy has not met his expectations, so he is now in the process of switching back to pure Holsteins to increase production.
The short-term target is 30 litres with 2.4 milkings and long term is 33 litres at 2.7 milkings per cow. To get this increase in production he is using first class silage, and he is restructuring the diet, increasing the concentrate given in the robot up to 6 kg/day. The switch back to pure Holsteins will also help increasing production, as the pure Holsteins will give around 10 more kilos per day than the Swedish Red cross.
Excellent reproduction through individual attention
The production has not been satisfactory but on the other hand the reproduction status is impressive. The farm’s veterinarian, Hector Muñoz, explains that the ideal calving interval is between 13 and 13.5 months, and Juan’s herd averages on 12.8. Getting below 13 months might be possible on a small farm with less than 40 cows, but is difficult on a farm with 400 cows. Hector says that the reason behind the excellent reproduction is the individual attention to the cows. The system allows them to follow each individual cow’s energy balance and body condition closely, ensuring she is in the best possible shape to get pregnant. This close control of each cow also helps them to detect diseases and illnesses at an early stage, before it affects the cows’ performance.
“We have full control of the cows!” says Hector, smiling.
KPIs – “you cannot control what you don’t measure”
With this herd management system the farmer has access to a large amount of data on his cows. Juan bases his decisions on what the system tells him, like for instance the strategy to phase out the Swedish Red cross by taking out ten red cows and bringing in five black and white to increase production. Isn’t it easy to become obsessed with all the information in the system, to look at things out of curiosity? Juan nods and says that it’s important to try and limit yourself to the information you think can help right now.
The reports they follow most closely at La Conchita and for which they use KPIs, Key Performance Indicators are:
1) Milkings per 24 hours: 2.4 milkings average per cow.
2) Production: 28 litres/day/cow
3) Activity, high or low: Apart from checking for high activity showing heat, Hector finds low activity extremely useful, for detecting abnormalities with cows that need to be followed up on.
4) Milking time: 7 minutes/milking. Was previously 9 minutes, but they started to use warm water to wash the teats, and milk let down became much faster.
5) Milk quality: SCC: <150000, which puts La Conchita among the nine farms (of 140) under 150 000 in the region. Protein: 3.3 and fat 3.7. It used to be 3.9, but his feed supplier changed the fat source in the feed which unexpectedly lowered the herd’s average milk fat content.
Robots better for the cows
Juan recently invited farmers and other stake holders in the industry to an Open Farm event. Francisco Rodriguez from DeLaval USA is the farm’s Automatic Milking Advisor, and he said during his talk at the event that switching from conventional to robotic milking can increase the production by 10%.
“I agree completely”, says Hector, “but it is not just the robot itself, it is the whole system. You make the cow’s life better!”
The system limits the social stress in the herd and allows the cows a natural behavior. The cow never has to change groups during her milking period, which reduces stress. The pressure of social hierarchy in a herd is very high. In conventional milking the cows are divided into groups according to in which stage of the milking they are, and they change groups several times during the milking period. Every time a group changes, social order has to be re-established. Every change affects production, and in this system this stress is avoided, since the cow stays in the same group from when she calves until she is dry.
Another important aspect is that the system allows the cow to follow her own rhythm without being disturbed, all according to her own needs. It lets the cow do her best without being interrupted. The immune system also gets stronger with less stress. Hector says that it is of course possible to produce more milk in a conventional milking system, where you can milk four times a day, but you will spend a lot of money on medicines and your cows will possibly only last one lactation. He doesn’t find this sustainable in the long run.
Comfortable and healthy cows bring good results
The comfort of the cows is important at La Conchita. They use cow mats in the cubicles, which is working very well. Both Juan and Hector agree that there are pros and cons with all types of beddings. Hector thinks that sand might be better from a cow’s perspective, but it involves more work and is more costly. Juan prefers using cow mats, although he knows that the benefits from using sand bedding are many. He is using a bio-digester for the manure, and the electricity it generates is used to heat the water on the farm. Switching to sand bedding would require a process of separating the sand from the manure and this would be too costly. The comfort of the cow mats are enough to keep the herd healthy, with very little incidence of lameness.
They singe the hair on the udders twice a year and the hooves are trimmed with the same frequency. There is a correlation between the good hoof health and good reproduction on the farm. Lame cows don’t move much, making it more difficult to detect when they are in heat. The herd’s replacement rate is 22%, and compared to many other intensive milking herds with replacement rates around 38-40% La Conchita is doing well. While they are phasing out the Swedish Red the replacement rate will increase, but this will be voluntary culling based on economic calculations. Juan and Hector firmly believe that keeping the cows as comfortable and healthy as possible will reduce costs and give good results.
The VMS barn at La Conchita applies Feed first cow traffic, and this works very well. Juan thinks that any herd with high yield and an average of 3-4 kg of concentrate fed in the robot will do well in any of the three traffic systems, free, milk first or feed first.
Can anyone become a robotic milking farmer?
“Well, yes. But you have to be committed to your work. The robot does not take away work, it allows you to work differently. Your work will be more targeted, have more direction. When you get to the office in the morning the system will tell you which cows are in heat, which cows have an elevated SCC, and it will tell you what you have to do “ says Juan.
The future of robotic milking in Mexico
Juan and Hector have decided to run a dealership with DeLaval, as suppliers of robotic equipment for the Mexican market. They believe that initially it will be a somewhat slow process, but that the influence from the US, where farmers have opened up very well to this new technology will be helpful. Also the need to be more efficient is becoming very clear to the Mexican farmers as they are starting to embrace new technology, especially the younger generation. Hector explains:
“The key of success lies in efficiency, and in reducing mistakes. This system leaves less chance for mistakes. Consistency is important, and if you automate the milking process on a farm like La Conchita with 400 cows, milking 2.4 times per day, 4 teats per cow, this means that you eliminate the chances for almost 4000 possible mistakes, every day. It gives you peace of mind; you don’t have to think about it.”
There is a certain resistance against new technology among dairy farmers in Mexico that builds on a fear for break-downs, but Juan and Hector have already had to test a worst-case scenario, when a mother card in the computer broke down. Within two hours they had received a new mother card, had it installed and were back milking as before.
Price is another thing that makes some of the farmers a bit hesitant, but, says Hector, our calculations show that the difference between a conventional parlour and a VMS is not that large.
At the recent Open Farm event, a young farmer realized, when he saw the possibilities to slowly grow the herd and add on robots, that this is what they should have done at his family’s farm. They are in the process of switching to a new rotary and the disruptions this involves for the cows and the milking routines will result in losses of milk and large numbers of mastitis cases. The sons have even decided to send their father on vacation during the time they are transitioning to the new parlour, afraid that he will have a heart attack if he sees his herd go through such a disruptive process. Had they instead decided to install robots and move the cows over more gradually and smoothly this could be avoided.
“The milk lost in the transition, the cost of mastitis and the gains in efficiency of the robot would come a long way to pay for the robots”, says Hector Muñoz.
There is also the option of adding robots to an existing milking system, and this is something that interests Hector. He would like to visit the Riedstra farm in Michigan, where they milk their best cows in robots and the rest of the herd in a rotary. The addition of the VMS robots increased the farm’s milking capacity without the need to add staff. “I think this is a model that could work well in Mexico,” says Hector.
The future of La Conchita
When asked how many VMS robots La Conchita will have in the future Juan laughs and says that first he has to pay off the ones he has now, but he adds that the demand for milk might grow in Mexico, and he might need to increase capacity as soon as the debts are paid. Hector says that he might to increase this capacity before that, if he wants to take his share of this growing demand, and Juan smiles and nods.
“If I can find some good financing I can grow. I can build another barn just like the ones I have and put in another eight robots. I will not need more people on the farm, even if I double the number of cows and robots.”