Indiana farmer milks 2,200 cows with 36 robots

Can robots effectively milk cows on large U.S. dairy farms?

That’s a question Plymouth, Indiana farmer Brian Houin is determined to answer at his family-owned Homestead Dairy operation. Canadian farmers have had tremendous success using robot milkers in smaller dairy operations, but Houin is putting the milking machines to the test on a whole new level. In what is described as the largest robot milking farm in North America, Houin milks 2,200 cows with 36 Lely robots.

All robots have been operating in a new barn since Jan. 1, 2018. The robot barn includes 12 pens, each containing three robots milking 180 cows.

Homestead also milks another 1,800 cows three times per day in a conventional double-25 parallel parlour, giving Houin a unique opportunity to compare the two milking systems.

Houin says labour efficiency is Homestead’s key motivation for its robot revolution. Labour is hard to find and retain, and reliability is an increasing challenge. He also believes that robots deliver cow comfort benefits and are more consumer-friendly, allowing farmers to tell a better story to consumers who want to know more about how animals are managed and cared for.

So how do the robots stack up? Last week at the World Dairy Expo in Madison, Wisconsin, Houin told a seminar room jam-packed with curious farmers that the robots have delivered a 30 to 40 per cent labour savings in their first nine months, compared to the conventional parlour.

Brian Houin tells RealAgriculture’s Bernard Tobin how 36 robots compare to a conventional parlour. Story continues after the video.

Houin also notes cows in the robot barn are producing five to six more pounds of milk per cow with no additional feed costs.

Another key metric for Houin is maintenance. Will it cost more to keep the robots running, compared to the parlour? So far, robots appear to be the clear winner with an average monthly maintenance cost per cow of $13.06, compared to $17.36 in the parlour. Houin does note that it’s difficult to compare new robots to an 18-year-old parlour, but the early evidence is promising.

So far, Houin gives robots a thumbs up and believes a 30 to 40 per cent labour savings is certainly incentive enough for larger U.S. dairy farms to invest in the technology.

 

Bernard Tobin

Bernard Tobin is Real Agriculture's Ontario Field Editor. AgBern was raised on a dairy farm near St. John's, Newfoundland. For the past two decades, he has specialized in agricultural communications. A Ryerson University journalism grad, he kicked off his career with a seven-year stint as Managing Editor and Field Editor for Farm and Country magazine. He has received six Canadian Farm Writers' Federation awards for journalism excellence. He's also worked for two of Canada's leading agricultural communications firms, providing public relations, branding and strategic marketing. Bern also works for Guelph-based Synthesis Agri-Food Network and talks the Real Dirt on Farming.

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