Milking with robots is finding its second wind on North American dairy farms, according to industry experts at Dairy Strong, a conference held yearly in Madison, Wis.

It’s a sort of resurgence. Use of so-called box robots started slowly on the continent in 2000, said Matt Daley, senior vice president of sales in North America for GEA, a leading dairy robot manufacturer. Expansion slowed in the recession and in the poor milk market in 2008-2009, he said, but installations on farms “have grown exponentially the last few years.”

For 2017, manufacturers reported sales of up to 870 boxes in the U.S. and Canada, Daley said. Canada, which has production quotas and higher milk prices, accounts for at least 500 of them as more farmers there find they can afford the investment.

Daley expects that 40 to 50 percent of U.S. cows will be robot-milked by about 2025, a huge increase from only about 2 percent in 2017 by either boxes or rotary milking robots. The rotary units are massive carousels with 50 to 70 stalls each, and about 300 were sold on the continent last year.

With a box robot (or box), a cow walks into a stall and munches feed while being milked by a machine that attaches to her udder. It is much the same as in a conventional parlor, where a worker attaches the milking machines. But the box, instead, does it all, even washing the udder before milking. Each box costs around $200,000 and completes up to 60 milkings a day (each cow usually is milked two to three times daily).

To a high degree, Daley says, the incentives to install boxes result from a worsening worker shortage, especially migrant labor, “driven by immigration reform ... maybe a wall, maybe not a wall, on the southern (U.S.) border ... ICE (Immigration and Customs Enforcement) raids.” He said ICE visits his own farm regularly, and investing in robots can mean “you can rest your mind that the cows are going to get milked.”

Greg Steele, a dairy credit specialist with Compeer Financial in Wisconsin, agreed: “The issue with reliable labor is certainly moving (milking robot) technology down the pike a lot faster than may have occurred without the shortage of labor.”

Steve Bodart, a veteran dairy-business consultant also with Compeer Financial, cautions that “robotics are not for everyone,” and, in fact, would be a mistake for dairy farmers to adopt solely to relieve a worker shortage. That’s because they are very complex, he said, plus they generate a tidal wave of data “that can drown you” if you are not ready to work with the robot manufacturer on using the robot’s information about the cow, her milk, her health, feed rations, and more.

Fortunately, Daley said, over the years, many dairy nutritionists, who have to devise rations for automated feeding in robot stalls, for example, lenders, who need to understand the farmer’s hefty investment, “and the farmers themselves have succeeded in getting their arms around the management of box-style robots,” he said.

Perhaps the first step, advises Kayla Nyegaard, an expert with Boumatic Robotics, is for dairy farmers “to decide if they are willing to work with a robot. It’s hard for some farmers to make that change because they want to be involved in it so much.” Farmers set up and oversee the box she said, but when it comes to the job of milking, “you have to be sort of hands-off with a robot.”

Mark Berning, who operates a St. Michael, Minn., dairy with other family members, installed boxes four years ago. He notes, too, that the robots’ flood of data could “overwhelm you when you look at it the first time.” But he learned to select the streams of data that can help him improve his operation and ignore the rest. The robot’s info helps him to minimize mastitis flare-ups, for example, he said.

Herd adjustments begin even before a cow gives milk. Berning explains that a farmer wants to minimize stress for a cow visiting a robot for her first season of milking, an important thing to do if milk production is to be maximized. So he “pre-trains” heifers before they deliver a calf, letting them have a few snacks in the box so they’re comfortable with the robot. “It has relieved a lot of problems when they first freshen,” he reports.

Besides the robots' inherent complexities, costs for maintenance are substantial. Berning estimates his at $8,000 annually per box.

Some farmers have converted a part of their operations to robot milking while continuing traditional milking parlors as well, and the two types of systems can show similar production records. Tom Oesch, who operates a dairy with a brother, cousin and others in Alto, Mich., reported some milk production summary numbers for both his 1,300 cows milked in parlors and 500 milked in robots. Daily milk volume per cow was similar, and though the rate for needed culling of aging cows was greater in the parlor operation, for example, the actual death loss was somewhat higher in the robot herd.

A study by University of Minnesota researchers on comparative efficiency and profitability, for example, tracked performance on farms with herds of 120, 240 and 1,500 lactating cows. While the 120- and 240-cow robotic dairies were more profitable than the parlors, the 1,500-cow parlor system was more profitable than the robots. A higher skill level is required for overseeing a box robot than for parlor milking jobs, and the assumed wage level for that job was $27 per hour.

Tim Trotter, executive director of the Wisconsin-based Dairy Business Association, sees farmers’ decisions to install milking robots resulting from many factors. “It comes back to access to labor and capital, and what works into their business model. It works for some farmers “who are perhaps never going to be of rotary size, but they need something to help them out” to run their dairies successfully.

 “Stay tuned. It’s really exciting to see,” he says.