by Dr. Francisco Rodriguez
Transitioning from conventional to robotic milking is a critical process that can be successfully executed as long as you plan your work and work your plan. It requires consistent work and methodic execution.
Avoiding negative impacts on people and cows by preventing undesirable events is crucial. Applying these principles enables the possibility of enjoying the features and benefits of this
Not every dairy begins the transition process from the same starting point. Today, approximately 60 percent of automatic milking system installations are constructed new and 40 percent are retrofitted, where cows remain in the same environment before and after startup. Both scenarios are different and require diverse transition management strategies.
New facilities can have a greater impact on the herd during the transition period due to major environmental changes. A strategy to ease the transition into new facilities can be as simple as
housing the animals in the new barn while continuing to milk in the conventional parlour. From every angle, gradually transitioning the cows is key to the smoothest adaptation.
Due to lower stress levels surrounding familiar environments, retrofitted installations have a lower impact on milk production and cow behaviour after startup.
The transition period covers three phases: six months before startup, startup and six months after startup.
In this article, we will focus on the first phase: six months prior to startup. This is the most important phase from all perspectives. It is the time where all plans and strategies must be defined. Unfortunately, this step is often underestimated. Ignoring crucial details and decision-making associated with startup planning will result in undue stress and a potential delayed transition.
Six months before startup
EDUCATE THE WORKFORCE
No doubt – moving into robotics requires additional skills concerning technology and herd management. Recognizing weaknesses and strengths within the management team is key in order to prepare ourselves for the new challenge.
GET COMFORTABLE WITH COMPUTERS
If you have already been working with herd management software, then you are probably ready. However, if instead you have had little or no contact with computers, now is the time to get back to school and take some classes. It does not mean that you need to become a computer expert; it means it is time to learn the basics. Experience will come with practice and time.
IMMERSION IN THE WORLD OF ROBOTIC MILKING
Touring and visiting dairies is a common practice for farmers interested in robotics. In order to learn how to run successful robotic milking operations and benchmark your success, one of the key objectives must be to build a network of peers. In addition to traditional learning opportunities, including reading materials or attending meetings, there are more innovative education channels such as webinars, virtual libraries and, of course, the social media community. Make sure to do your homework by using multiple learning strategies and inviting the entire farm team members including external advisers.
Two months before startup: Set the herd
This is the time to put all the focus and effort on the herd.
HOW TO SELECT THE RIGHT ANIMALS
There are three main criteria to consider when selecting cows for a robotic milking system: udder conformation, udder health, and feet and legs. In robotic milking every second counts, and being able to attach rapidly and accurately is necessary for both cow health and system performance. Select cows with centrally placed teats and avoid rear-crossed teats. Finding a balance between teat placement and udder cleft will have a positive impact on cow longevity.
If there is a possibility to select animals from a larger group, consider the following five-step selection process in order to have an ideal group of “robotic” cows:
- Identify the animals with highest milk flow rates.
- Out of that group, test and select the individuals that have low somatic cell counts and are negative to contagious mastitis pathogens.
- Evaluate udder conformation, especially rear teat placement.
- Make sure cows have good, healthy feet and legs.
- If possible, group cows based on lactation number. Dedicated young and mature groups are ideal.
EVALUATE YOUR CONTAGIOUS MASTITIS SCREENING PROGRAM
Once the final group of cows is defined, the main objective is to ensure every animal entering and being milked by the robot is free of contagious pathogens. Unfortunately, due to group management and dynamics, segregation of infected cows is not a viable option in robotic milking systems compared to conventional milking systems. It is strongly recommended to run monthly bulk tank cultures and monitor cows individually.
Culture all cows above 200,000 SCC for more than one week, every other day. If a cow has at least one sample positive to pathogens such as staph. aureus, she is considered positive and a decision has to be made. Your veterinarian’s involvement is critical to develop a milk quality plan.
CONSIDER HOOF TRIMMING NOW
All cows should visit the hoof trimmer between one and two months prior to startup in addition to receiving consistent footbath treatment. Do not wait until the last moment to trim feet, as the combination of new concrete, stress factors and trimming procedures can lead to undesirable hoof issues.
REVIEW THE DESIGN OF YOUR SOPS WITH KEY PLAYERS
Planning by scenarios and consistency are two special benefits of robotic milking. The best way to capitalize on both is through aligning the team, including the herd veterinarian and nutritionist. The objective is to develop, discuss and apply the set of herd SOPs moving forward.
20 days before startup: Get everyone ready
REMOVE UDDER HAIR
Udder hair removal is a must with robotic milking systems. Cows should be enrolled in a two-month or three-month schedule, varying by season. In order to efficiently perform udder hair removal, it is strongly recommended to make this a weekly or biweekly routine. Working with smaller groups of cows avoids major disruptions.
ACCURATELY TRANSFER YOUR DATA
Take time to transfer data or build the new database well in advance of starting up. Remember, the quality of entered data is equal to the quality of obtained information. Try to maximize software usage from the beginning.
DEVELOP YOUR FEEDING PLAN DURING THE TRAINING PERIOD
Although not every installation is able to have a feed-only period, it is highly recommended and ideal to feed cows through the robot (not milking) at least two weeks prior to the first milking. Feeding before is probably the best practice with the highest impact on early performance after startup. Keep in mind, it is important to ensure feed consistency by avoiding provider and formulation changes during this period of time. The amount to feed varies depending on cow traffic and day of transition, ranging between .9 to 3.6 kilograms per cow per day.
After one week, it is possible to combine feeding only with spraying teats and robotic arm movements. Combining the two will motivate cows to visit the robot and acclimate them to the new sounds and environment.
Although feed-only has the biggest impact on early performance, it is not the only method to train cows. There are other techniques that depend primarily on cow traffic design. Ask your provider for advice on this topic.
BEGIN YOUR STARTUP ON DEFAULT SETTINGS
The entire system must be in “safe mode” in preparation for startup, from milking procedure to feeding, and general management settings. If settings are placed with maximum levels of protection for your herd, the focus can turn to proper herd management basics including clean bedding, frequent feeding and push-up, and training/fetching of overdue and new cows.
Two days before startup: Almost there
Now is the time to make sure all components of the robotic milking equipment and systems are working properly and that the cows and people are aligned. The entire project must be organized for final inspection and evaluation. These are the top five points to consider:
- System evaluation
- Regulatory inspection
- Database surveillance
- Proper animal identification
- Coordinated startup teams and schedule
By turning the above transition plan from conventional to robotic milking into a reality, and always remembering the focus on team communication for optimal success, you should be ready to go for this exciting journey. Through planning your work and working your plan, you can anticipate good news and great results.