Dairy farmers recently gathered at Mor-Dale Farms, in Myersville, PA, to learn about automation: calf feeders, feed pushers, robotic milking systems and more. Part One discussed the use of automatic calf feeders as presented at the workshop “Automation and the Dairy Industry,” organized by Dr. Charles Garner, DVM.
Automatic feeding robots
Once calves mature, automation can still play a role in their daily feeding. Even in barns where humans — not robots — milk the cows, equipment, such as an automatic feed pusher, can simplify farm chores while helping to insure the cows consume the maximum dry matter intake, and are eating more of their daily rations.
Dan Shreiner, a Lely representative, introduced the next big thing in automatic feeding equipment: the Lely Vector. The Vector drives through the barn, scans the feed available at the bunk, and returns to the “feed kitchen” to load, mix, and deliver any required rations back to the bunk.
The “feed kitchen” is where the farmer stores the ingredients needed for the rations. The Vector combines the proper ingredients, in the correct amounts, mixes them and serves them. It also pushes feed back up to the bunk as it travels the barn. The farmer will have to load the kitchen two or three times per week, depending on weather, how fast the feed is consumed, and the size of the storage area.
The Vector can also coordinate with tower silos, and turn on and off the silo controls. It is “self-learning,” to avoid over-filling. When used with a tower silo, it reduces feeding labor 100 percent, Shreiner said.
The Vector “feeds only as cows need it,” so fresh feed is always available, increasing DMI. It can be programmed with a variety of rations, and “as long as the ration for that pen is entered in the computer, it will mix and deliver feed,” he said, allowing different groups of animals to be fed precise rations with the Vector system. Mixing times and loading sequences can be changed to “get the best possible ration.”
Cows naturally want to eat at will. With the Vector, they know that the feed is regularly replenished, so there is no competition at the bunk.
“Auto-feeding is still in its early stages,” and is “evolving,” Shreiner said. There are approximately two-dozen Canadian farms using the system, and 250 worldwide, with the first ones just appearing in the United States.
Robotic milking systems
Another way to automate the dairy is via robotic milking systems. Designed to milk cows, and free the farmer from the clock, robotic milking systems rely on providing some portion of the ration to entice cows to come to the machine for milking. Some barns are set up in a “free flow” system, where the cows can wander from stall to bunk to robot unimpeded. In these systems, more of the ration is typically fed through the robot.
This PMR – or partial mixed ration – fed by the robot during milking, is adjusted to meet each cow’s individual needs. In a guided-flow system, the cows have to go to the robot in order to get fed, or go to the bunk in order to get to the robot. This type of system can allow less of the PMR to be fed at the robot.
While robotic milking systems allow cows to milk 24 hours/day, without a farmer present, “you can’t just plug the machine in and walk away,” Lewis Horning, a Pennsylvania dairy farmer, who has a single robot for his 50 head herd, said.
Horning has been milking robotically for five years. There is routine maintenance required three or four times a year, and a lot of simple components that need to work together. While he doesn’t do his own service, he is “on call” 24 hours/day, and if something on the robot needs attention, he has to respond.
Although there is a lot of data collected by the robots, the data isn’t the reason Lewis went robotic. Not having to worry about milking times, and getting more milk, with less labor, are the primary benefits on his farm.
“It’s there to milk my cows,” he said.
The robot handles everything from prepping to disinfecting after removal from the machine, with no humans needed, unless there is a problem. Cows can be turned away if their udders are not full. Fresh animals can be allowed increased milking frequency. As with automatic calf feeders, robotic milking systems are programmable, individualizing the nutrition given to each cow. High and low cows can received varying amounts of grain during milking.
Navigating the herd
DeLaval representative Dr. Lizzy French presented information on the Herd Navigator, which was given FDA approval in 2015, and is available for sale in the United States as of April 2016. The machine performs in-line milk testing. During milking, at specific times, milk samples are automatically collected and sent to an analysis unit.
The Herd Navigator “identifies cows at critical times during their lactation and manages them,” Dr. French said. The system allows producers to “focus on the right cows at the right time,” providing any needed intervention before production issues occur.
The testing indicates the presences of sub-clinical ketosis, mastitis, and can identify cows ready to be bred. The data from the in-line milk testing allows only cows meeting criteria to be treated, not the entire herd. If risk factors increase, then the sampling rate will automatically increase.
The self-cleaning system is designed for use with or without robotic milking systems, Dr. French said. One unit per double-16 milking parlors, or one per six robots, is required.
The Herd Navigator is designed to increase cow longevity and farm profitability by identifying critical times for intervention individually, and allowing the producer to treat specific animals as needed. Each farm can tailor the system to meet its own management goals. Producers can optimize the system, determining “what data is going to make the biggest impact,” on their operation, she said.
Dairy farmers are not obsolete. But their roles are becoming more fluid. The variety of automatic equipment, designed to feed, milk and monitor the herd, has increased flexibility, allowing dairy farmers more control over their time. By reducing daily necessary labor, automatic systems are maximizing herd health and productivity, while minimizing the time and labor needed to care for the herd.
If robotic milking systems are in place, they will receive some feed from the robot during milking. How substantial a portion of the ration the cow receives at the robot depends on whether the robots are used in a free flow, or a guided flow system.