Automatic milking systems (AMS) – What they CAN and CANNOT do!

Automatic milking systems (AMS)

The automatic milking system (AMS) represents a revolutionary innovation in dairy farming that replaces the physical labor needed to harvest milk and influences the entire farm system.

It refers to a system that automates all of the milking process and cow management functions currently undertaken by a mix of manual and machine systems in conventional milking.

Automatic milking systems, which are often referred to as robotic or voluntary milking systems, typically consist of a milking stall or crate with a robotic arm that attaches the teat cups to each cow without human intervention, an electronic identification system and a milking machine, and sensors to assess animal health and milk quality.

AMS makes milking times and milking frequencies more flexible than conventional milking systems, eliminating the need to milk cows at regular set times. It allows the operator to shift their attention to other areas of on-farm management such as feeding animals, insemination, animal health treatments, and calf rearing.

How does AMS work?

Each cow is equipped with a unique electronic identification, enabling the cow to be electronically recognized at gates and in the milking unit. As a cow enters the system, a robotic arm cleans the teats, attaches the milking cups, and sprays each cow’s teats. Each quarter is milked separately, and cups are removed from each teat based on the milk flow, thus minimizing overmilking. Most automatic milking systems can feed grain-based concentrate at each milking.

Single box systems: The most common type of automatic milking system is the ‘single box,’ in which one cow is milked at a time by a dedicated robotic arm in a milking stall, performing all milk harvesting tasks. Every single box can perform around 150 daily milking events, allowing some idle time for cleaning, servicing, and maintaining. Hence, it is best suited for milking about 60 to 70 cows per day.

Multi-box systems: The ‘multi-box’ systems are an alternative to a single box, in which one robotic arm operates across more than one milking stall. Generally speaking, these multi-box systems can milk more cows per robotic arm, but fewer cows per milking stall. The robotic arm is usually idle for less time because it can move on to attend another cow in another stall once it has attached milking cups to a cow in one particular stall. In general, this has an advantage from the point of view of capital costs. Flexibility in these systems means they can start with one robotic system per milking stand and expand up to five milking stands per robotic arm, in some cases, according to farm system requirements.

What CAN an AMS do?

  • An automated milking system can identify and admit cow to milking stall.
  • It can determine the expected yield or milking frequency to decide when the cow is due to be milked.
  • It can decide whether the cow is due to be milked, based on operator settings.
  • It can dispense feed, as per operator settings.
  • It can determine the level of concentrate feeding for the cows.
  • It can clean teats and attach teat cups.
  • It removes teat cups when the flow rate falls to a pre-determined level.
  • Post milking, it sprays teat disinfection and allows the cow to leave the stall.
  • It records the milk yield and can access and report on milk quality using in-line sensors.
  • It can draft cows as per operator settings or using sensor data.
  • It can raise alarm lists, as per operator settings.
  • When combined with a cow traffic management system, it can also manage paddock grazing.

What CAN an AMS NOT do?

  • First of all, an automated milking system cannot become frustrated and angry and fail to turn up to work!
  • It cannot bring cows to the milking stall.
  • It cannot distinguish teats from dirty hair on the udder.
  • It cannot treat sick cows or milk cows with unsuitable udder conformation.
  • It cannot call the veterinarian and inseminate cows.
  • It cannot clean down the milking area.
  • It cannot refill chemical containers.
  • It cannot order new supplies of feed and chemicals.
  • It cannot replace worn or damaged rubber components.
  • It cannot service itself.

What are the benefits of AMS?

  • Lifestyle: Farmers would no longer be tied to a traditional dairy farming lifestyle, enabling them to have an ‘easier’ working day.
  • Flexibility: Farmers can enjoy more time to have a social life as the clock does not bound them. They are not needed to get back to milk. They can adapt more socially acceptable hours of work.
  • Labor (cost and availability): Though the initial outlay on AMS is expensive, it can solve the other challenges of attracting experienced and reliable labor. It can reduce reliance on foreign-born employees. The system also attracts a different pool of labor, especially the young.
  • Increased productivity: AMS has the potential to increase milk yields through more frequent milking. This produces greater returns from high yielding cows in particular.
  • Cow welfare: AMS creates a stress-free environment for the cows. Cows can be milked whenever they desire. AMS also changes the ways of identifying cow health and welfare issues. It reduces human error and procedural drifts.