Alta. dairy family calls robotic milkers a boon for farm

A cow is milked by one of four robotic milkers at Favour Holsteins, near Picture Butte, Alta., while others wait their turn. | Barb Glen photo

PICTURE BUTTE, Alta. — Four robotic milkers were a big investment for Favour Holsteins, a dairy farm operated by Klaas VanderVeen and his son, Eric. It’s been almost a year since their installation and results have been positive.

“Last November we fired these things up and we’ve been milking with them ever since,” Eric told those on a Lethbridge County sustainable agriculture tour Sept. 26.

“The transition of course was a lot of work. (The cows) were just used to being brought into the parlour, that kind of thing. Now they have to come on their own.”

It took about three months to educate the cows to use the robotic milkers without prompting, he said.

As with other robotic systems, the cows each wear a neckband transponder that the robot uses to determine how much feed to provide during each visit and to record milk output.

However, Eric said he chose a system that allows the cows to enter on either side of the robotic milker, giving more flexibility in barn design and simplifying any sorting that is needed.

The cows visit the robots about three times a day on average, though some come five times and others only two. If their visits are too frequent, they’ve already eaten their daily pellet ration, so the robot ushers them out without either feeding or milking.

The robots allow cows to be milked 24 hours a day, though there is down time for cleaning, filter changes and other maintenance.

“Each robot can handle about 55 cows, so we’re not at capacity yet in the barn. We have 200 free stalls in the barn, so we have room for more cows.”

Eric said he has noticed health improvements with the arrival of the robotics, which he attributes in part to greater freedom of movement for the cows and less time standing in the parlour waiting to be milked.

“The cows are just a lot more content.”

He’s also seen fewer mastitis cases and stable somatic cell counts.

Klaas said the robots reduce labour costs and provide a bit more freedom for operators.

“The longevity of the cows should be a little bit longer too because it’s not as stressful. This is a lot easier on them.”

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