When the Cows Choose Robots do the Milking


The financing solution made it possible for Jan–Erik Hansson to order 20 milking robots. Today his cows manage the milking themselves. And when the cows can choose the result is more milk, healthier cattle, more calves and more time for other chores for one of Sweden’s largest milk producers.

There are more than 1500 cattle at Vallen farm. Even so it’s remarkably quiet. Noisiest is actually the shepherd dog Pepsi who full of energy runs back and forth to get attention. From the three large cattle houses there is once in a while a clonking sound when one of the 1100 milking cows goes in or out of a milking robot. Besides that, the only thing heard is a ruminating calm, and some extra activity just when the feeding robot has filled up the supplies in the feeding line. Every day the cows at Vallen eat approximately 100 tons of grass. The cows are free to walk outdoors but most of them are content with staying inside, close to the food, the back scratcher and the milking robots, where a visit is rewarded with some extra tasty fodder. That makes the traffic in and out of the robots peaceful and quite regular. The cows at Vallen provide a total average of 25 kilos of milk per second. That equals 1500 kilos per hour that’s filled into the two milk tanks standing outside the cattle houses.

“The present average is 34-36 tons of milk every 24 hours, but in a couple of months when the last two robots are installed we will get more than 40 tons”, says Jan-Erik Hansson who with an annual delivery of 13 million kilos milk is the dairy company Arla’s single largest Swedish milk supplier. ”Most of the milk goes to Kallhäll in Stockholm and becomes consumer milk and cream.”

When the cows choose. Robots do the milking

Steps Up - Not Down
Jan-Erik Hansson has been a dairy farmer for 37 years. At the age of 17 he took over his father’s farm Snaten, located some kilometres further south along the Ljusnan valley. In the beginning of the 1980’s the farm had 16 cows and was considered one of the larger among the 32 dairy farms in the area. Since then the farms have closed down, one by one, and there is no longer any milking cows in any of the villages around his childhood home. At the same speed as others have packed up has Jan-Erik Hansson stepped up. 16 cows was increased to 35, to 48 and to 70. The biggest step was to buy Vallens farm in 2001, and since then he counts his cows in hundreds. So when other farmers complain about low milk prices and close down he does the opposite.

“I guess I am the kind of person that sees opportunities. I realised a long time ago that you can’t get rich from what the dairy companies pays for the milk. The way to make money is to cut the costs. At present 0,01 SEK saved per kilo milk equals 120 000 SEK. If we reduce the costs with 0,10 SEK that’s 1.2 million SEK. Would the dairy companies then increase the milk price with 0,10 SEK, that would double the dividend and give 2.4 million SEK”, he calculates.

I was sceptical as I probably had an old perception of robots. In addition, the investment per robot was far too expensive"

Economies of Scales
Economies of scales has been important to cut costs.

“If I bring a large portfolio when I go shopping I will definitely get a better price. That applies to everything from interest rates, to fodder or diesel. We also produce a large share of our fodder.”

Besides his own 450 hectares arable he leases another 1 000 hectares. This far north it’s spring wheat and spring barley that works best, and can be harvested three times a year. Many have shaken their heads in disbelief and questioned why he invests in milking cows in this northern part of Sweden, but Jan-Erik Hansson sees also the geography as an advantage.

“Land is cheaper and the support system gives me 0,50 SEK per kilo milk instead of the national average of 0,20 SEK”, he says. “And the competition for labour is not as hard as further south.”

Lack of Labour
The lack of labour did play an important role in the decision to invest in milking robots though. For many years Jan- Erik had planned to build a new system, but for carousel milking. Both drawings and bank loans were approved.

“But it has become increasingly difficult to recruit labour. These days nobody is prepared to spend six to nine hours a day milking”, he says.

What made Jan-Erik Hansson re-think was a visit to the agricultural fair Elmia where he met Benny Eriksson at Lely that manufactures milking robots and also is one of DLL’s partners.

“I was sceptical as I probably had an old perception of robots. In addition, the investment per robot was far too expensive.”

Robots the Solution
If Jan-Erik Hansson was unsure Benny Eriksson, who himself has been a dairy farmer, was convinced that milking robots were the solution. He offered research and together they visited dairy farms in Sweden, Denmark and Germany.

“I was surprised to see how well it worked and how it all coincided with our own philosophy about animal welfare and that the cows should be able to move freely”, he says. “This was an untouched land for us though and it lead to lots of agony and three note books full of calculations. I was nearly sleepless. We knew how the milking carousel would work, but did we want to be dependent on 10-12 employees with high turnover? Then Lely came with a solution that would work.”

The financing solution that Lely could offer through DLL became crucial to Jan-Erik Hansson's willingness and possibility to automate the milking.

“Today we lease the robots from DLL, which is a superb solution for us. We didn’t have to tie-up our capital, something that would have had a very high impact on the balance sheet. Our own investment was the building of an extensions on the stables for the robots.”

After the decision was made and the robots installed an intense running-in period followed, one stable at the time.

“It was a big change for us as well as for the cows. Initially we had to lead them into the robots. I worked around the clock for three weeks.”

A year later close to 2 700 milkings are done every 24 hours and during that time the robot might miss a teat about ten times.

“We can see that the cows like this. It’s like she thanks us by increasing the yield. We had calculated with a 12 percent increase, were hoping for 15 percent and got 18 percent. When she is in heat she is more likely to calve and she stays healthy. These are important parameters”, says Jan-Erik Hansson.