While robotic milkers have been used in Europe since 1990, only about 5 percent of U.S. dairy operations use the technology.
But things are changing, and there’s plenty of room to grow, said Ben Laine, senior analyst with CoBank.
The use of robotic milkers in the U.S. has mostly been on small to medium dairies in the upper Midwest and the Northeast. But in the last couple of years, experimentation with robotics has become more commonplace at large-scale operations, he said.
“So you’re seeing it across the spectrum, different size farms and across more regions of the country than we’ve seen in the past,” he said.
One of the biggest changes driving the move is increasing labor costs and growing difficulty in finding workers. While there still isn’t a clear-cut financial advantage to the technology across the industry, those labor issues are making the trade-offs tilt in favor of robotics, he said.
It’s also coming into play when dairy owners need to make big investments and upgrades to their milking parlor, he said.
If they’re at that point and wondering if the next generation is coming back to the farm or whether they should liquidate, making the change to robotics is a way to attract a younger generation that might be on the fence about returning, he said.
Robotic milking is a way to keep the operation modern, sustainable and in business, he said.
One of the main considerations cited by producers in making their decision is having access to a dealer or service, he said.
“You need someone who can get there within an hour or two. If you’re down very long, you start losing money,” he said.
It’s also helpful to be technologically and mechanically savvy to be able to fix things on the fly, he said.
“And you still have to be comfortable working on a dairy and working with animals; it’s still a dairy,” he said.
Cost of a robotic milker, which can handle an average of 60 cows milking two or three times a day, is in the $200,000 range. But costs can be less for larger purchases of more robots. The investment is like paying for labor up front, he said.
As for return on investment, that’s difficult to nail down. In some cases ROI improves, and in others it decreases a little, he said.
“We don’t have a lot of data to look back on,” he said.
Anecdotally, pay-off seems to be at 10 to 12 years. Data from Europe is encouraging about the life span of robotic milkers, he said.
“We hear about them lasting 20 years, and technology keeps getting better,” he said.
One of the primary motivations for adoption is labor cost and efficiency, and the adoption rate in the U.S. is projected to grow 20 to 30 percent annually in the years ahead, he said.