Are Robotic Milkers a Technology for Your Farm? Finances and Returns for Robotic Dairies

Dr. Jim Salfer from the University of Minnesota will be presenting information about robotic milkers at Snipes in Sunnyside on Thursday, January 19, from 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM.

Light refreshments and beverages will be provided.

“If it ain’t broke…don’t fix it!”

I inherited this philosophy from my father who lived through the Great Depression.

For a time I worked with him in his small construction business. He never threw anything away nor did he buy any new tool to replace an old one unless we had fixed it multiple times and there was just no hope of saving it again. He also struggled with adopting to new or better ways to improve productivity. The way he had always done it was the best way.

Unfortunately, this thinking did not always work to our advantage. Dad’s construction business might have been a little more profitable had we invested in some new tools and new technologies to make the business more profitable. “Broken” can mean several things. For example…

Everyone agrees that heat stress is a critical concern in animal production. For animals that are housed indoors, a properly designed and operating ventilation system is critical to the farms economic performance. A ventilation fan that does not rotate is clearly “broken” and must be fixed. But what about a barn ventilation system that was designed for the climate and animal genetics in 1996? Even if everything is operational, the system might still be considered “broken” if it is not getting the job done.

Clearly, animal heat stress results in production losses. A simple “return on investment” calculation would be ideal to determine “broken.” You know, calculate the economic loss from a heat stress event and determine how many heat stress events per year. Then, compare those economic losses to the investment in some new ventilation system or cooling technology. The final decision is the lower of the two costs over some period of time.

Unfortunately, this is easier said than done. Questions like the number, intensity, and duration of heat events per year is hard to quantify as are questions related to the temperatures prior to and after those heat events. Also, what is the economic and productivity impact from these different heat event scenarios? What is the expected benefit from the proposed ventilation or cooling system?

And now, add one more thing: Climate Change. How is climate in your region changing? Will there be more heat events in the future or less? Will there be more variability? Will the timing of heat events change (e.g. early spring heat vents). Considering all this, how do we make that investment calculation?

A new USDA publication called “Adaptation Resources for Agriculture: Responding to Climate Variability and Change in the Midwest and Northeast” walks users through some planning steps for making climate based decisions. Adapting to a Changing Climate: A Planning Guide is another resource developed by this project.

Unfortunately, neither of these guides will provide a simple answer to this problem. There are no shortcuts nor is there a “right” answer. It is a matter of making the best decision we can with the information available.

Bottom line: “If it ain’t broken, don’t fix it…but be careful how you define “broken.”

Always Considering Climate—David

Amber’s Top Ten Tips: Dairy Cattle Handling

Dairy employees with excellent stockmanship skills are true assets. Few employees enter the dairy industry with these skills, but effective dairy cattle handling training can greatly improve employee safety, animal safety, and your dairy’s finances. Because this training is so important, I partnered with the University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Agricultural Safety and Health Center to help you determine the best dairy cattle handling training model for your dairy. We are currently looking for Washington dairies that are willing to work with us on this study. If you are interested, please contact me at As you consider this opportunity, let’s take a look at the many aspects of dairy cattle handling.

Here’s the latest information about dairy cattle handling:

  1. Headlock Stocking Rates. Providing enough headlocks to allow every cow in a group to lock-up at the same time is important for handling efficiency. When designing a new handling facility for your dairy,
  2. Potentially Dangerous Incidents. The number of potentially dangerous incidents (handler is kicked, head-butted, pushed, or run over by cows) are higher when moving cows to the hoof trimming area than moving cows to the milking parlor. Employees should be trained to move cows from a safe distance, especially when moving them towards a less-familiar area, such as the hoof trimming area.
  3. Heart Rate. A 91% greater increase in cow heart rates (an indication of stress) occurs when handlers move them to hoof trimming rather than milking. Ensure your cattle experience as little stress as possible near the milking parlor, which may mean you need to move your hoof trimming away from the parlor.
  4. Tactile vs. Auditory. Moving cows by pulling on their head collars or neck straps leads to increases in head-butts from cows; whereas, shouting leads to increases in kicking behavior.
  5. Milk Production. Dairies that have employees trained in stockmanship have an average of 243 lbs. more of milk production/lactation/cow than dairies that do not have employees trained in stockmanship.
  6. Insurance Premiums. An average of 73% of dairy employee injuries are due to cattle, leading to insurance premium increases, especially over the last five years.
  7. Milking Parlor. Dairy employee injuries commonly occur in the milking parlor area. These injuries can typically be attributed to employees not paying attention to the cows and/or employees not having adequate cattle handling skills.
  8. Calf Handling. Calves negatively-handled (rough handling and shouting) experience higher heart rates and respiratory rates after disbudding than calves gently-handled.
  9. Tactile vs. Visual. Cattle have a higher reactivity to a tactile stimulus than a visual stimulus. Using visual stimuli rather than tactile stimuli to move cows to the parlor will minimize the amount of stress they experience prior to milking.
  10. Behavior and Performance. Gentle handling has been shown to improve cow flow through the parlor by 39% and decrease defecations in the parlor by 84%, when compared to rough handling of cows.

Results of WSU-NWREC Corn Silage Variety Trial

In the summer of 2016, a corn silage variety trial was conducted at the Washington State University Northwestern Research and Extension Center in Mount Vernon, WA. The trial was sponsored by Blue River Hybrids Organic Seed of Ames, IA (

Eight varieties of organic hybrid seed were planted on May 16 into non-organic soil in four repetitions. Samples were harvested on Sept. 26-27, 133 days after planting. According to WSU Ag Weather Net, that 133-day growing season provided 1499 Growing Degree Days (GDD). The number of GDDs was the lowest in four years but 80 GDDs higher than the previous eight-year average. The area Ag Weather Net station on the WSU-NWREC recorded 8.7 inches of rain during this time.

Ideally, harvest would have been conducted one or two weeks later but this harvest date was the only one that fit Blue River staff’s multi-state travel schedule. Derek Johnson, the Western Region Assistant Sales Manager for Blue River Hybrids, said “The corn was a little bit wetter than [we would have liked]. Overall, we were we pleased with the tonnage we got in this trial. In most of the hybrids, it equaled or exceeded our results in Wisconsin.”

Reviewing the analysis data in Table 1 provided by Blue River Hybrids, four of the eight varieties were outstanding in at least two analyzed criteria; two of these top four were arguably the top performers, depending on which criteria are most highly valued by a producer. Variety 27B16 was the clear winner for harvested tons per acre, tons per acre adjusted for 70% moisture, acid detergent fiber (ADF, a measure of fiber digestibility), milk production per acre of corn silage, and as a percentage of the average of all varieties’ milk per acre. However, variety 06B21 had the lowest days to maturity (a very important factor in the PNW with low heat units and GDDs) and therefore the lowest percent moisture (highest percent dry matter). It also had the lowest neutral detergent fiber (a measure of intake), highest starch content (an energy measure), highest starch per acre, and highest percentage of the average of all varieties’ starch pounds per acre. On the other hand, variety 09R19 had the highest milk per ton of silage and percentage of the average of all varieties’ milk per ton of silage.

Table 1. Results of 2016 Corn Silage Variety Trial at WSU-NWREC. Most desirable results for each characteristic are in bold font. Statistical data analysis to determine if there are significant differences between varieties has yet to be conducted.
Hybrid RM* Harvest Pop Harvest Tons/A Harvest % Moist Tons/A 70% ADF % (%DM) NDFD30 (%NDF) Starch % DM Starch lbs/A Starch lbs % of Ave. 7 Hr Star Digest Milk/ Ton Milk/Ton % of Ave. Milk/A Milk/A % of Ave.
06B21 76 32,250 23.60 68.5% 24.12 25.50% 57.8% 29.1% 4,327 134.0% 68.0% 3,437 106.9% 25,551 108.9%
09R19 79 32,250 19.50 70.0% 19.50 26.60% 62.2% 25.5% 2,984 92.4% 68.0% 3,455 107.4% 20,212 86.1%
14A91 82 37,000 27.20 72.7% 26.19 28.60% 58.5% 21.8% 3,238 100.3% 68.7% 3,232 100.5% 24,000 102.3%
21A10 85 36,000 26.60 70.6% 26.37 28.10% 58.4% 22.6% 3,535 109.5% 68.5% 3,279 102.0% 25,643 109.3%
21L90 85 34,750 24.90 71.1% 24.51 29.40% 58.9% 17.5% 2,519 78.0% 67.4% 3,032 94.3% 21,819 93.0%
27B16 88 32,750 28.40 71.3% 27.88 24.80% 62.3% 25.5% 4,157 128.8% 68.1% 3,382 105.2% 27,566 117.5%
26A17 88 35,500 25.50 72.1% 24.76 29.00% 59.0% 19.3% 2,746 85.1% 68.5% 3,019 93.9% 21,479 91.5%
33L90 93 34,250 25.70 71.1% 25.30 29.70% 59.2% 15.6% 2,317 71.8% 65.4% 2,890 89.9% 21,465 91.5%

Photos from various stages of the trial are below. We plan to conduct another corn silage variety trial in 2017 and encourage those interested to inquire about touring the trial at their convenience next summer—just call Susan Kerr ahead of time at 360-848-6151 to arrange a tour.