See your existing facility opportunities
Most obvious solution would be to build a new robot facility, but it is not always economically possible and due to a big investment it needs also an expansion. On the other hand, many farms have good housing facilities and it would be wasting of resources not to use them. Therefore, looking at converting an existing barn to robots can become a viable option.
So can I now buy robots and just install them someway to my old barn? Yes You can but then You don’t achieve goals in labour savings and cow performance, which You likely would like to expect. We have visited and measured labour times in many retrofit AMS barns and in some of then labour savings have not been able to recieved compared to a parlor milking. Why is that?
In most these cases robot or robots have just dropped into lay-out with a wish is solves the problem of milking. It does do that, but dairy barn is much more than just get cows to be milked. Instead of milking cows in a parlor You need to fetch lots of cows to be milked and because in robot there is only one cow at time in milking, it can take a lot of time.
Robot is just one piece of the puzzle
Robot is a milk harvesting machine and buying it doesn´t automatically guarantee labour efficiency. We think that Dairy barn itself is a tool to make milk and milking robot is one component in it. So in order to have well working AMS barn, You need to look a barn as a whole and rethink the management of cows first. If management of cows with robotic milking is new to you, find yourself a partner who can help you to do the right choices with transition cow management with robots for example. Then ask yourself what kind of facilities you need to fulfill the requirements. Thinking all management through in design phase is as important when putting to robots to old barn as building a new one.
Look beyond building time
In existing barn we have cows when we build for robots. We also have more restrictions, for example space available, manure systems, building posts and existing buildings around. Important rule in retrofit projects is to look beyond the building time. It is a big temptation to locate robots in a way that disturbance for running a dairy during building time is as easy as possible. It is true that building time is sometimes challenging and temporary problems will occur. Another mistake is just try to make changes around robots as little as possible to get change to be cheap. But the old rule is still there, “Pay now and save later”. Saving some money in an investment phase can cost You a tremendous sum of labour and money over the years You will use Your barn.
Robots don´t make your barn new
One important thing to remember in retrofits is that robot switch doesn´t solve cow comfort, unless You don´t do anything to it at the same time. Stall dimensions and alley widths are typically less in old barns. In a well working robot barn cows must lie down in stalls so that alleys are open for cows to walk voluntarily to robots, in parlor barn cows are fetched to be milked. In general in retrofits it is reasonable not to expect as high results as in a new barn if a barn is old and dimensions are not good. Of course, it is useful during a robot switch to update and improve at least some of cow environment. The focus should be in getting cows to lie down in stalls more. This way problem of narrow manure alleys to become a cow traffic bottleneck can be decreased. Very important place for improvement is ventilation and cooling. In a summer heat cows get lazy to visit in robots and fetch rate can increase a lot.
Design is the Key
The importance of design phase is a key, also in retrofit cases. Before You act, think. With good design, functionality can be as good as in new ones. But to gain it, it needs more changes to a lay-out than just dropping a robot into a barn. And it all starts about management. Robotic milking is not just a new way to milk the cows, it is a new way to manage cows. Whole management needs to be planned again.
Robot retrofit projects we have been involved, show us what can be achieved. We hear stories of labour savings of 50% and also quite a big improvements in cow production, mostly due to 3rd milking. Robot retrofit is in general a big opportunity to a dairy farm to climb up to a next level, to start to manage a farm in a different way. So, set a target enough high, don´t accept just a switch of milking system. The potential is there.