Robots are a Reality for Large Herds

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This is part 1 of a 2 part series.

As technology improves, larger dairies are beginning to transition to robotic milking. An upcoming installation in Ancali, Chile will contain 64 Voluntary Milking Systems (VMS)™. These facilities are beginning to see the benefit of the parlour going to the cow, instead of cow going to the parlour.

One such benefit is the potential for a higher milk yield per cow. Well managed large dairies that have gone from 3X in a conventional milking system to almost 3X (2.8X) in a VMS (minimal difference in milk frequency), have reported that cows produce 8-10% more milk, while receiving the same quality of feed and level of management. Part of this could be attributed to improved overall cow comfort and new facilities, but another factor is likely that time away from feed and rest is minimized.

Aside from a boost in production, there are other benefits to consider including those to the cow, the workforce, the environment and even younger generations. In this article, we’ll focus on the cow.

Benefits for the cow

Heifers can have their own Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) for start-up and there are several options to help with a quiet, calm and positive experience. Activities that can cause her to react negatively can be minimized. Depending on herd size, pre-calving exposure with a daily amount of pellet acceptable by the local nutritionist allows her to associate the robot with palatable feedstuff. The arm can be programmed to attach and spray so she acclimates to its movement and is not fearful.

Farms with at least 5 robots are developing pre-fresh areas where gates are installed to assist with the heifer’s learning of how to move through them. The addition of automatic feeders is even implemented to simulate the experience in the robot.

If exposure to the robot pre-calving is not efficient, the next option is to have a protocol to walk the heifer through the robot and milk her manually at least once or twice to ensure she is introduced in a calm, quiet way.

You can calve all cows out on the robot or transition them from a conventional milking system. Once the fresh animals are out of the pen, and are negative to ketosis, fresh checks have determined a clean uterus, and have no evidence of lameness (Zinpro score of 1 or 2), they can go to their respective groups – VMS for 2 year olds or VMS for 2nd lactation plus. Partial mixed rations (PMR) can be adjusted accordingly if the nutritionist wishes to adjust the parameters according to lactation number.

Additionally, a robotic system enables you to select parameters to allow milking based on time and yield, allowing more access to early lactation and higher producing animals. Greater peaks have been established in large automated milking systems that aim for at least 2.8 milkings for cows producing at least 35 lbs/milking. Milking times ideally under 7 minutes should be a goal for animals meeting this requirement.

It is important to also aim for at least 21 ½ hours of total milking time if trying to reach maximum capacity (including cleaning cycles) per robot with less than 1 ½ hour of idle time, or non-milking periods.

A greater control of feed provides another benefit to the cows. Customized pellets can be included to target a specific physiological state (for example a fresh cow or late lactation cow). One containing a higher starch level, assuming ample forage NDF intake, can provide greater energy intake, potentially in a rapidly degraded form depending on the source, to high-producing cows early in lactation and beyond. Later in lactation, to control body condition at dry off, an alternative pellet can be given. This pellet should provide more soluble fiber to shift rumen fermentation, altering energy partitioning based on microbial production of short-chain fatty acids and reducing adipose accumulation. The flexibility of multiple feedstuffs is a major advantage of automated systems to target feed animals according to their production and stage of lactation.

Recommendations of feeding parameters based on target intakes and cow traffic may be monitored with current technology:

• The DeLaval body condition scoring BCS objectively and consistently scores cattle and is used to monitor nutritional management strategies.

• Herd Navigator displays how cattle are cycling and may be used to relate to nutritional status based on levels of progesterone

In our next issue, we’ll explore further benefits for the cows as well as benefits for your employees.

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Dr. French is Dairy Management Advisor – robotic solutions. She grew up in Urbana, IL with an enthusiasm for animals and agriculture from family roots in crop farming. She firmly believes feeding the highest quality wholesome forages supports the greatest total health of all ruminant animals. Lizzy enjoys learning how dairy cattle are fed across the world, but is fortunate to reside in the great dairy state of Wisconsin. In her spare time she can be found picking a banjo in her bluegrass band or random airports on the road. She also loves adventuring in the great outdoors with her huskies.

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