Robotic milking: Benefits beyond yield

Advocates of automation in the dairy industry believe it can unlock a host of health and welfare benefits, as well as productivity gains. We speak to two experts to find out more.

Automating the routine and time-consuming task of milking not only frees up time on a dairy farm, but also generates a huge amount of data which can unlock a whole new level of insight into individual cow health and performance. The technology is being refined and updated constantly, but is based on more than 30 years of expertise, says Lely.

The company revealed the prototype of its Astronaut milking robot in 1992 and brought it to market three years later. Four further updated models have since been introduced, with the latest A5 incarnation being revealed in 2018. There are now more than 2200 Astronaut milking robots installed on dairy farms across the UK and Ireland, responsible for around 3.2 million litres of milk per day.

Reducing stress and boosting health through free cow traffic

Central to an automated system is the ‘free cow traffic’ principle, where the cow is able to visit the milking robot when and how often she chooses, explains vet Mike Steele, Farm Management Support Lead for Lely Atlantic. Cows are identified via a collar and the milking process is individualised, with the slowest quarter being attached first. A personalised ration can also be delivered while she visits the robot.

The free cow traffic system reduces stress within the herd, which is good for both health and welfare, says Mike. When setting up the robots, Lely advisors ensure the whole system reflects this approach, with ample access to the feed fence, water troughs and cubicles pinch points within the barn. This means bullying is reduced and cows can rest, eat, drink and be milked when they choose with minimal disturbance.

By reducing stress, this approach increases feed intakes, meaning cows are better able to cope with any disease challenges and boosts overall fertility. This is particularly important for the highest yielding cows who have the narrowest energy margin, says Mike.

Identifying issues through Horizon data

Lely launched its Horizon app responsible for the data yielded by the Astronaut in 2021, replacing its previous T4C management system. “Horizon collects 200 values per cow per day and makes it easy for farm staff to interpret and act on the data,” says Lely Customer Sales Support Addi Kidson. “You can easily identify cows needing extra attention.”

Mike agrees: “With a parlour you would normally rely on your milk recorder for cell counts, but with the Astronaut you gain that from every teat, every milking, so you can pick up mastitis cases much sooner.”

Horizon pulls different parameters together to flag other potential health issues too, he explains. “For example, low rumination combined with higher protein over fat can point towards acidosis in individual animals.”

Improving farmers' wellbeing through robotic milking

Freeing up labour brings a host of additional business and lifestyle advantages. More time can be spent on farm management, and tasks such as caring for calves. “Paying close attention to calves is so important for the future of the herd,” says Addi.

The productivity gains made possible through automated milking are also well documented, says Mike. Studies in the Netherlands and Canada revealed yields from farms using Lely robots were 10% higher than parlour farms. This is predominantly due to an increased milking frequency, with the average number of milkings in an automated system at 3.2 per day.

Add to that the lifestyle benefits for farmers who are no longer tied to set milking times. Lely farmers appreciate having more flexibility, says Addi. “Being able to choose where to focus your time and attention, plus the ability to take time away from the farm, can have a huge impact on farmers' wellbeing.”

For more information on robotic milking, contact your local Lely Center at:


drones used for farming

Future Farming

Farmers are currently seeing the biggest changes in agriculture for more than 50 years. As a mutual insurer, we’ve stood by South West farmers since 1903 and through our Future Farming Programme, we are helping our Members and the wider farming community navigate the changes ahead in this transformative time.

Future Farming Programme