I felt in the lion's den because I have been talking and publishing about the economic effects of automatic milking which are not always positive. As you know, automatic milking has become mainstream nowadays. Since the time of the first serious publications on automatic milking the economics of automatic milking has been of interest. These first publications were in the book called: Prospects for Automatic Milking: proceedings of the International Symposium on Prospects for Automatic Milking, a symposium organized by the old IMAG institute. At that time I was working on my PhD and gave a presentation of my own work (on automated diagnosis of mastitis problem, using artificial intelligence), but at that time I was quite skeptical about the prospects of automatic milking: would it really work? Those first robots did not look as elegant as they are now, and the performance was still far from perfect. Obviously I was wrong.
The economic question has since then not let me loose. A series of scientific publications has been made throughout the years, both for European as well as US circumstances. Most of these publications are so-called normative studies. They use estimations of costs of the milking robot, labour savings, production changes and compare this with an equal farm with a conventional milking parlour. These studies give great indications, but they are always theoretical. In 2007 we published a first studie (carried out by Ronald Bijl as an MSc thesis) on the economics of automatic milking based on real economic data, from an accountancy firm called Alfa Accountants en Adviseurs. In total, 62 farms (31 using an AMS and 31 using a CMS) were analyzed for the year 2003, using a case control study. Differences between years 2002 and 2003 also were analyzed, by comparing a sub-group of 16 farms with an AMS and 16 farms with a CMS. Matching was based on the time of investment in a milking system (same year), the total milk production per year, and intensity (kg/ha). Results of 2003 showed that the farms with an AMS used on average 29% less labor than farms with a CMS. In contrast, farms using a CMS grew faster (
Very recently, another study was published. Wilma Steeneveld received a grant from WASS (the Wageningen Social Sciences Graduate School) and was able to visit prof. Loren Tauer from Cornell University to co-operate on the application of a relatively new method: Efficiency analysis, based on data envelopment analysis (DEA). With this method, you do not study the net income (or something like that), but the efficiency of a farm. The advantage is that not all inputs need to be translated into money, which is sometimes very difficult for inputs such as family labour and land. Data envelopment analysis compares the levels of inputs and outputs for a given farm against all other farms in the daaset to dermine the relative efficiency of farms. The efficiency of farms is related to the farm that was the most efficient. Data from another accountancy firm, Accon-AVM were used.
This means that the economic performance of farms with an automatic milking system are almost equal to the farms with a conventional milking system. Good news for DeLaval, Lely and other manufacturers of automatic milking systems.