Robots have come a long way over the last few decades, but thankfully, the bots that clean our dairy barns are still far from what classic science fiction expected robots to become. Still, these are incredible pieces of technology that some would regard as a must-have for a modern dairy farm. But what are they, and how can dairy barn cleaning robots help you?
Dairy barn cleaning robots are similar in concept to robotic vacuum cleaners but on a much larger scale. You program a sizeable mechanical device to move along a path. As it moves, it sweeps up all the manure, straw, and other dirt it comes into contact with, then releases it into a storage pit.
It might seem overkill to invest in a device like this, but they solve many problems. Before you decide whether you need one, let’s go through all the details of these robots that clean your dairy barns so you can see the benefits for yourself. Here’s all you need to know about them.
Overview Of Dairy Barn Cleaning Robots
Most of us have seen the new trend of household robots that vacuum your home. The Roomba is a particularly well-known example. They make household chores a breeze and often provide some entertainment and bragging rights, too. But have you ever thought it would be amazing to have such a device to clean your barn and clean up the manure and other dirt that assembles in barns?
Well, these incredible devices actually exist. Robots that clean dairy barns are becoming more and more commonplace in larger dairies, and with how effective they are, there’s a good chance that we will only see more of them over the next few years.
What They Are?
Dairy barn-cleaning robots come in different types and sizes. Some are simple rail-based machines with no “intelligence” that move along a pre-determined path, sweeping the manure into a groove in the floor, from where it scrapes the waste into a pit. This is the simplest way to implement such machines, but they are highly efficient.
The more advanced robots are fully electronic and programmable. Like the Roomba, you can program it using an app on your smartphone or computer. You indicate the path it should follow while the device is on its base station, which doubles as a charging hub for its battery. You can also program a schedule for when it should do its cleaning.
On the schedule you programmed into it, the machine will move from its base station and start moving around the floor on the pre-programmed route. Angled blades scrape the manure and dirt from the floor into a holding chamber inside the machine. It will continue along its path until it completes the entire circuit, after which it will return to the base station.
While the machine recharges, it releases the waste into a holding chamber through a chute underneath the base station.
How Barn Cleaning Robots Work?
Before we go into the details, it’s crucial to note that barn-cleaning robots need a flat floor surface to work effectively. Bumps and rough patches can make cleaning the floor difficult and even damage some parts of the machine.
There are two ways these machines can work. The first one can only be called a “robot” by the vaguest definition of the word, but it works similarly and is effective, so let’s discuss that first.
The Simplest Barn-Cleaning “Robot”
The simplest form is not necessarily the easiest. It’s a simple metallic device that runs along a cable, rail, or rod, scraping the manure and other dirt into a groove in the middle of a floor that runs into an under-floor pipe.
The machine has another scraper that scrapes along the pipe, pushing the waste along. When it reaches the end of its run, the under-floor scraper pushes the waste into a chute that leads to a manure storage chamber.
It’s a simple system that requires no programming, making it ideal in some scenarios. But there are a few problems with it:
- The machine can’t go around corners very well, so you can only use it in barns with one long passage. If you have multiple parallel stalls, you must either install multiple such units or not use the device at all.
- Installation is a process that could require a few days of work since you must make a groove and dig the underground pipe in the barn’s floor. That’s apart from installing the cable or guide rail and the machine.
- Of course, if you don’t already have direct access to a chute and manure storage chamber, you will have to install that, too.
So, even though the machine itself may be cheaper than the intelligent robots, the installation could cost a lot more and might even result in you having to shut down your barn temporarily.
Modern Barn-Cleaning Robots
Modern dairy barn-cleaning robots clean similarly to simpler ones but have a few significant differences.
The machine is battery-powered and has an electric motor that allows it to move freely, which means you don’t have to install a guide rail or cable, and there’s no need to dig a groove and pipe into your barn’s floor. But that does not mean that there’s no installation required.
The robot needs a base station. The station consists of a few things, namely:
- A charging hub: The robot’s battery will run low at some point, so you need to connect it to a power outlet to let it charge. The robots can automatically move into position on their base stations (or “hubs”) to allow the charger to connect. They can charge from any appropriate electrical source, including solar power.
- A chute and manure storage container: If you already have one of these in your barn, installing your robot’s base station above it could save you a lot of trouble and make the process a lot easier for you.
- The hub may sometimes need a water source: If you have a type of cleaning robot that sprays water over the manure before collecting it, you need to have a water supply for the robot to connect with so that it can refill its water tank.
While the robot is charging in its base station, you can use an app on your smartphone or a computer to program it. The programming involves indicating a specific path for the robot to follow and setting a schedule for it to run. The ways they connect to the apps differ from robot to robot. Most use WiFi or Bluetooth, so you probably have to be in range to program it.
These robots can go around corners, so there’s no need to program only straight paths. Once the schedule triggers the robot to start, it will move out of its base station and go along the way you programmed.
The machine, which looks a bit like a giant lawnmower, has two angled scrapers at the front that scrapes the waste off the ground and pushes it towards the middle, where the machine has a hole to collect the waste.
Some barn-cleaning robots spray water onto the manure before scraping it up, while others don’t need the waste to be wet. It all depends on the model you buy.
As the waste enters through the hole in front of the robot, a wheel with more scrapers collects it and deposits it inside a built-in storage chamber. Most of these storage chambers can store around 500 liters (≈132 gallons) of manure and waste.
It continues along its path, scooping up and storing any waste it encounters. Once it has completed the circuit you programmed into it, the robot will return to its base station.
When it gets to the station, the robot will automatically maneuver itself to connect to its charger to recharge its batteries. While this happens, a hatch opens in the bottom of the robot to release the collected waste into a chute that leads straight into your manure storage station.
Most robots include a water jet that sprays into the built-in waste storage chamber to ensure everything is emptied out.
Cleaning Robots: Some Variations On How They Work
Though the basics remain the same, some models work a bit differently:
- Some barn-cleaning robots have brushes on each side at the front, next to the scrapers, to brush more of the waste and dirt into the scrapers. These tend to clean barns more efficiently, but the brushes need occasional cleaning, maintenance, or even replacement. These models are a higher-maintenance solution.
- Some models don’t rely on the pre-programmed path as much as others. Some robots have built-in sensors to detect the edges of a pathway. You can place wooden planks in the robot’s way to tell it when to turn and move back the way it came. The sensors are excellent, but they don’t always work as well as you might hope.
- Certain robots have built-in vacuums that can vacuum up the muck instead of scraping it into the built-in storage system. They range in strength and effectiveness, but some prefer the regular scraper type over the vacuum type.
The Advantages Of Barn-Cleaning Robots
We all understand that it’s vital to clean your barn regularly. Especially in large dairy farms with many cows in one barn, diseases can spread instantly if the floors aren’t cleaned often enough. But why not just employ more people to clean the barn for you?
Here are some of the advantages of getting a barn-cleaning robot for your dairy:
Stop Or Slow The Spreading Of Diseases
As mentioned, manure can spread disease, and the more cows you have inside the barn, the faster it can spread. Dirty barn floors become breeding grounds for bacteria that can spread and cause a variety of problems for your livestock. The manure and other waste can also cause diseases if they stick to the animal hooves and cause build-up.
Yes, you can (and probably already do) employ people to clean your barn. But there’s a good chance that they don’t do it nearly often enough, and they can get distracted, causing delays in cleaning.
A programmable barn-cleaning robot is an ideal solution to this problem. It will clean the floor on a fixed schedule and keep the sanitation levels consistently high. Many dairy farmers have mentioned that their cows suffer fewer cracked hooves since they started using cleaning robots. In addition, tails and udders are also cleaner, which means better hygiene in general.
No Need To Employ More Staff
Sometimes a farm can grow quickly, but the growth does not necessarily justify employing more people to keep the barns clean. As sad as it is to admit, technology is making more and more jobs obsolete, and this is one of those cases. Though cleaning staff is far from obsolete, it makes sense in the long run for a large dairy farm to replace some cleaning staff with robots.
The initial investment of a barn-cleaning robot is relatively high, but the return on investment is priceless. Running costs are a fraction of the wages you would have paid your workers. And, let’s be honest, robots don’t have a problem cleaning up manure daily.
A barn-cleaning robot will ensure that your barn floor gets cleaned regularly without the element of human error.
Robots Can Clean More Than Just The Manure Alleys
The design of a barn-cleaning robot makes it ideal for cleaning not only the manure alleys but almost every area of your dairy farm. If it’s safe and accessible, you can set the robot to clean it.
Some farms use robots to clean the cubicle passages eight times per day and the feed lines three times daily. So there’s almost no limit to the areas you can clean.
They Support Any Type Of Floor
Modern barn-cleaning robots don’t have the floor limitations of some older types. As long as the floor is relatively flat, you can be sure that your robot will be able to clean it.
However, remember that different makes and models have different floor ratings. Therefore, you will have to confirm that the robot you have in mind will work well with the type of floor you have in your barn, and it’s also a good idea to try and make the floor as even and flat as possible before the robot goes on its first cleaning drive.
If you have a low-emission floor in your barn, you need proof that your barn’s floor is scraped and cleaned every two hours, at the very least.
Many of these barn-cleaning robots create automatic log files that indicate when they start their cleaning runs, how they progressed, and when they finished. These logs provide all the evidence you need to fulfill the low-emission requirements.
The Robots Are Safe
The robots are designed to be safe for cows and people. All the corners and edges are rounded, not sharp, so they won’t harm a tail that gets in the way. They are also designed to maintain a safe distance from all edges.
The maximum speed is only about 6 meters per minute, and many of these slow-moving robots also have sensors that can detect obstacles and either stop or turn around when they encounter one.
The Robots Won’t Scare The Cows
Because the machine moves so slowly, it won’t scare the cows. Its electrical motor is also made to be extremely quiet, so there won’t even be a lot of noise around it while it’s working.
Better Working Environment
We may get used to the manure on the floor, but that doesn’t mean it’s pleasant. Especially workers that aren’t used to working on dairy farms will find it much easier and more enjoyable to work in the barns if there’s a robot constantly cleaning the floors and removing most of the manure and other waste.
Downsides Of Dairy Barn Cleaning Robots
As incredible as these devices can be, there are definitely some downsides as well.
You May Need To Prepare Your Barn
Your new barn-cleaning robot will require clear access to all the areas that it’s supposed to clean. Unfortunately, this means you may have to make a few adjustments to your barn before using the robot.
For example, the robot must be able to pass under all fences. It needs a clearance height of at least 70 cm (≈28 inches). To use the robot safely, your border height must also be at least 15 cm depending on the model.
Where you place the hub is also of crucial importance. First, you have to ensure that it’s in a place where it can easily access the manure storage container. Secondly, you need a power connector to charge the robot’s battery. Thirdly, you might need a water supply.
The fourth point is that it should be away from where the cows move. You don’t want cows to damage your expensive robot or its base station accidentally.
The floors and areas where you want the robot to move should also be open and clear of any obstacles. You may have to get a professional in first to have a look and ensure that everything is perfect for the robot to do its job.
Cleaning Robots Can Be Quite Expensive
The barn-cleaning robots are complex electronic and mechanical devices. Such machines are not cheap. Add to that the fact that they have batteries and need charging stations, and things become even more expensive. Then we are not even touching on the cost of the installation, which, as we’ve seen, can be quite a process.
That’s why it’s often only large dairy farms that find them viable at the moment, mainly when they are designing and building a new barn. Preparing an existing barn for the robot is often too expensive.
This will likely change in the not-too-distant future. As mass production picks up, the prices will drop, and they might become viable for small- to medium-sized dairy farms.
Technology Isn’t Perfect
As mentioned, the barn-cleaning robots strike a delicate balance between electronics and mechanics. Apart from that, they are programmable and often use sensors, so those are two more layers that could fail. The robot also runs around in manure all day, often with a fair amount of water.
Though the manufacturers make every effort to ensure that the robots are efficient and well-built, technology can still fail.
If you have a worker cleaning your barn and they get sick, you get someone else to do the cleaning that day. But, unfortunately, you don’t have that option when a robot breaks down. Instead, you must call a technician to come and repair the problem, which could cause a few days’ delays.
We saw earlier that barn-cleaning robots eliminate human error from the cleaning process. The exception to this lies in the robot’s programming.
Since it’s up to the user or installing technician to configure the robot, it’s possible to make a mistake. Models with sensors are generally better at handling this, which is most new models. Still, if a particular area relies strongly on programmed information instead of sensor input, it’s possible to get it wrong.
Humans Can Still Clean Better
The robots don’t detect manure or dirt on the floor and then go to clean them up. It’s a purely automated process. When the robot moves, it cleans.
This means that the robot won’t notice if it missed a spot. A particularly difficult heap of manure in a hard-to-reach space will mean nothing to the robot, and it will simply continue on its merry way.
You can’t expect a barn-cleaning robot to clean as well as a human would, so it’s essential that your cleaning staff still occasionally go over the floor to ensure everything is properly clean. You can also do a regular inspection to see if there are problem areas that the robot consistently misses, then see if there’s something you can do to improve its performance in those spots.
Check out our comprehensive guide on maintaining proper hygiene on a dairy farm
Robots can clean the barns on your dairy farm. They do so automatically based on a pre-programmed path and schedule. They do a good job, which helps to ensure better hygiene for your animals and workers. But problems like technical failures could arise, and the installation price and effort make these barn-cleaning robots impractical for all but the large dairy farms.