Automatic Milking Systems in North America
Thorough planning and research, willingness to adapt your management style and ability to trust the system to milk your cows without your active involvement are all necessary if you want to make a successful transition to automatic milking, Mark Futcher, Marketing Manager - Automatic Milking for DeLaval Inc., North America shares his experience and gives his advice.
How is the use of Automatic Milking Systems developing in North America? Who are the ones that make the move to automatic milking?
The AMS option is gaining in popularity in North America for a number of reasons:
First, there have been successful AMS in operation throughout North America for more than a decade, so the technology has proven itself. At the moment, AMS installations in North America range in size from 1 unit to 20 units, varied forms of cow traffic from free to managed options, assorted freestall configurations and are also becoming more common in grazing/pasturing applications. Odds are, for someone looking to incorporate AMS on their farm, success has been achieved by someone not too far away that started from a similar situation.
Second, there are a number of realities at play today that may serve to make adaptation more attractive, ultimately however, it’s all about productivity and efficiency.
Lastly, experience to date suggests that while perhaps some 50% of AMS installations involve an entirely new facility, an AMS can perform very well in an existing facility remodeled appropriately to best-suit this dynamic change in technology and husbandry of cattle. With the growing knowledge of how AMS may be adapted to existing facilities, this technology has become more available to those dairy farm families not wanting or able to build new.
Typically with conventional milking applications, we tended to treat a herd as a ‘batch’ or sub-divide into a number of groups. AMS affords us the opportunity to perhaps once again best manage the individual cow; this in itself can augment the productivity of a dairy farm.
At DeLaval, we see our Voluntary Milking System, VMS, as a valuable solution and opportunity for dairy producers to do more with less, which translates to potential upsides like:
- milking and managing more cows with less labor,
- more productive use of time on farm than focus on traditionally onerous, repetitive and consuming though critical tasks like milk extraction,
- and possibly more time to enjoy a more flexible lifestyle, though at no time sacrificing the high level of management a progressive and profitable dairy farm demands.
Is AMS for everyone, or does it take a specific kind of producer or farm?
Much has been learned, not only in North America but globally, with continued adaptation of AMS and growing numbers of installations to monitor, benchmark and evaluate. As an industry it’s fair to say that we have learned much and today ‘only know what we know.’ The goal of course, is to not duplicate errors of past which is often referred to as CI (Continuous Improvement).
It is clear that not every producer, family, facility or farm is suited to an AMS as we know it today. Adaptation of AMS on a dairy farm is a paradigm shift which in reality, as stated often by producers that have gone through implementation of an AMS: ‘my cows adapted a lot faster than we did.’ That common admission only may well hit the nail on the head.
There are many reasons for this, ranging from the need for users to develop the needed peace of mind, knowing that the AMS will perform, that it can milk cows when they are not physically present to observe and/or be actively engaged in the process. Others may struggle to adapt, adjust and leverage the data that higher technologies and herd management software affords them.
At the same time, we are witness to attempts at making a barn designed and constructed some number of decades ago into a facility for AMS. Invariably, these scenarios will offer compromises and perhaps even bottlenecks not well-suited to AMS. At DeLaval, we make every effort to identify, discuss and overcome such issues during the project planning stages. Having shared that, there are times when a conventional solution such as a milking parlor will simply be more cost-effective, justifiable and more productive for a particular farm based on the individual circumstance.
CI is a process that had a beginning but has no end. No doubt, AMS technologies will continue to evolve, and collectively we will all grow in our knowledge and understanding of the interactions between bovine, man and machine. The ingenuity of those within the dairy industry never ceases to amaze, whether it be a better way to swing a gate, deliver bedding to a freestall, formulate a dairy ration or automate a process.
What advice would you give a dairy farmer who is considering going Automatic?
1) Start your planning process a minimum of two years in advance.
Read, research, document, tour, attend conferences, etc. At the same time, DO NOT become so engrossed in the process of planning your future use of AMS that management of your existing operation and livelihood suffers. More often than not, an existing herd is transitioned to AMS, and perhaps added to via purchased cattle. Superior health and productivity of a herd at the outset of AMS adaptation is a key component of realized successes going forward.
2) Visit facilities of all layouts, designs, brands and configurations.
Initially, do not limit your exposure to only those existing installations of similar herd size or perceived desires, such as preferred means of cow traffic. There is something to be learned everywhere, even that ‘better way to swing a gate’ for a particular purpose. And ALWAYS, travel with a camera and/or video recorder, of course asking permission of the farm owner before taking any footage! It should also be noted, and I’ll admit I’ve always found it easier to spend someone else’s money, the cost of a plane ticket and/or a couple nights away from home should not deter us from more extensive travel. In the grand scheme, incremental travel costs during the planning stages may yield a significant return, even if we only learned that ‘better way to swing a gate’ while away.
3) Surround yourself with those people and organizations that can offer insight and expertise.
4) Remember that a pencil is less expensive than a jackhammer!
Many of us are visual people. Designing, adjusting and tweaking a facility layout and design on paper to best align with your management philosophies is far superior than adjustments during construction. Consider developing your SOPs (Standard Operating Procedures) for your AMS installation during the planning stages of project development, answering questions like- ‘how, when, where and by whom will I trim hooves? Then build to suit your desired SOPs and best practices. Too often in the past we have planted a post or built a wall without thoroughly identifying what ramifications it may bring with- this can easily be avoided with thorough planning and dialogue.
6) Ask the right questions and/or truthfully answer them when asked by others.
Few things in life are certain. An AMS does not make absolute the realization of more milk production per cow on a farm, easier succession planning and interest by next generations, lower feed costs or better sleeps. However, the growing consideration of AMS use by dairy producers worldwide clearly suggests that Automatic Milking Systems are a viable alternative worthy of investigation as farm families seek out ways, means and tools to better their farm’s productivity and sustainability in the years to come.
7) Lastly, and often overlooked, be sure to make every effort to leverage the opportunity and flexibility to update your AMS, facility and operation over time.
Few things stand still. No doubt the dairy industry at-large will see continued progress. Let’s not, any of us, paint ourselves into a corner by design.
(Interview with Mark Futcher, Marketing Manager - Automatic Milking for DeLaval Inc. North America)