Top tips for buying a used milking robot

Milking robots are a big investment, but with machines beginning to dribble on to the second-hand market, you can pick up a good one for a fraction of the new price.We take a closer look at what’s available.

Cow in milking robot

©Angus Findlay

How many robots are running worldwide?

Dutch powerhouse Lely dominates the world market, claiming to have roughly 20,000 of its Astronaut milkers on farms.

In second place is Swedish dairy giant De Laval with about 10,000 robots working mainly in western Europe. British firm Fullwood is a distant third with closer to 1,000 units.

Other companies including GEA and Boumatic have contributed another 1,000 machines to the total world market.

Do manufacturers sell second-hand trade-ins?

Cows going in and out of robot milker

©Anthea Kitching

Lely sells a handful of used robots through its own dealers each year. Its Taurus scheme puts second-hand units through a thorough £20,000 refurbishment to get them up to scratch.

However, the cost of the refurb means your trade-in won’t be worth as much money as it would if it was sold privately.

Independent second-hand dealers are few and far between. The only one in the UK is Tim Gibson, based in Bedale, North Yorkshire.

Is the second-hand market growing?

Robotic cluster attached to cow udders

©Tim Scrivener

Yes – quickly. The combination of trade-ins and farmers dropping out of dairy because of the poor milk prices means more machines are available than ever. These can range in age from one to 15 years old.

Quite a few units also make their way across the Channel from Holland, Germany, Denmark and France, though the numbers imported depends heavily on the euro exchange rate.

At present, second-hand milkers make up roughly 15% of all robot installations, equating to about 40 machines a year.

Why do farmers buy used machines?

Most used robots go to farmers already running one or more automated milkers. Having several machines gives them the flexibility to increase the herd size as and when milk prices rise.

It is possible to get two second-hand milkers for the price of a new one, and run them at far less than 100% efficiency to avoid relying on expensive service packages.

There is also the appeal of having some backup. With one robot running at full capacity, the cows’ routine is disrupted every time it has to be serviced.

It may only be out of action for a short time, but it can take the herd up to three days to recover from just a two-hour delay.

How much cheaper is a used machine?

There are some real bargains on the second-hand market if you are willing to give them a shot. Take some Lely Astronaut models as an example:

2015 (new) A4: £120,000

2011 A4: £60,000

2006 A3: £40,000

2002 A2: £22,000.

A year-old machine will have lost roughly 25% of its value so if you can find one it could be available at a pretty attractive price.

However, five-year-old machines are easiest to sell. They have the same £5,000-£10,000 installation cost but have usually lost a lot of their value so buyers find it easier to justify the capital investment.

What about early-generation models?

The oldest robots still working are up to 23 years old. Even at that age they are not valueless, though – a 20-year-old is still worth the thick end of £5,000 as spare parts.

Lely robot milker control panel

©FLPA/Rex Shutterstock

That is because many of the components aren’t specific to just one manufacturer and some fit other automatic agricultural equipment, too.

A good example is Lely’s touchscreen control panel, which is the same as the one used on Valtra tractors, and the machines also use standard-issue air valves.

There is plenty of money in the lasers, too – they are £5,000 new, but genuine used versions still sell for £2,000.

In fact, only the chassis and gates are specific to the Astronaut. 

What’s the life expectancy of a robot?

Almost 25 years since their launch, original Astronauts can still be found on UK farms, which suggests they are built to last. The same can be said of Fullwood and De Laval machines, which maintain a reasonable second-hand value.

The big appeal of the early-generation robots is that they are bolted to the concrete floor and easy to move with pallet forks.

Later machines, such as Lely’s A4, arrive on-farm unassembled and must be concreted into the ground.

Installation time varies; if there is a pre-prepared concrete base in place, then the whole process can be completed in as little as a week. 

What about backup?

The difficulty for independent dealers is providing a national 24-hour backup service. However, if you do go down the second-hand route you should still be able to buy a service contract from the nearest local dealer affiliated to a manufacturer.

Lely Astronaut robot milking machine

©Tim Scrivener

This will usually cost about £3,500/year for each robot, plus any parts. If you want the replacement parts included in the package then prices rise to between £4,500/year and £6,500/year per robot.

However, most people are now opting for pay-as-you-go contracts that cost anything between £45/hour and £115/hour depending on the franchisee.

Approach these contracts with caution, though – they can get expensive if you have got a less experienced engineer searching for a problem on a machine he is unfamiliar with, all while charging £100/hour.

See also: Advice for dairy farmers considering robot milkers

Is insurance a problem?

Insurance companies rarely query the purchase of second-hand robots.

However finance companies don’t like to lend cash for robots more than 10 years old because, by the time the finance ends, the machine will have a pretty low value. A better bet is to either buy it outright, or take out a loan.

Top buying tips

Consider the layout of your farm buildings and where to position the machine. Decide whether you want a right- or left-handed robot, as that will immediately reduce your options.

Look out for robots that have been serviced on top-end, £5,000/year contracts. They are more likely to have genuine new parts, rather than refurbished replacements.

Make the effort to see the machine working before it is disassembled – it will give you the chance to see how it works and how it is connected. If you are selling, then bear in mind that machines in storage are harder to shift; if you are buying, you could pick up a bargain if you take a punt on one of these, but it is not without its risks.

Check out the system it is being used in on the seller’s farm. If the cows are bedded on sand you can expect more wear in the arm joints. Financially it is not a big deal – just a case of replacing the bushes – but it is another thing to consider.

A complete service kit of parts costs less than £100 and can be done in two hours if you have the right man on the job.

Make sure the unit gets a sanitising double hot wash before it is removed from the farm. Also check there is no muck in the pipework and that the air line is disconnected and blanked-off.

Look after the arm during transit. This is the business end of the machine and it needs to be strapped down carefully to avoid any damage.

It is worth budgeting for a couple of replacement components. That said, there are fewer hidden problems to worry about when buying a genuine off-farm robot than there are with a tractor.