SENECA FALLS, NY — While robotic dairy operations may seem very different from manual dairy management, in the most important ways, they’re very similar, according to Doug Waterman, Ph.D.
Waterman is the Director of Dairy Technology Application at Trouw Nutrition Agresearch. He spoke on “Robotics and Maximizing Milk Per Box: Grouping and Feeding Strategies” at Empire Farm Days.
Waterman said a recent study of 635 automated farms indicated that after a few years of adjusting to robotic systems, dairymen experienced the same level of production as manually managed farms.
He thinks higher levels of production are possible with robotic systems, but optimizing production relies upon the same principles as in a manual parlor, including high quality forage, good cow comfort (including deep bedded stalls), available feed, adequate bunk space, adequate stocking density, low days in milk, low lameness, good quality heifers, low metabolic disease and few treated cows.
In some ways, milk-reducing effects such as lameness can decrease milk more in automated milking system herds than manually milked herds.
“Lameness will influence visits — high versus low, feeding frequency, use of stalls, lying time and lying bouts,” Waterman said.
He referenced a study by M.T. King in 2016, “Lameness, productivity and cow behavior in dairy herds with automated milking systems” which studied 41 automated farms in Canada that had about 20 percent lame cows.
The cows produced 3.5 less milk, were milked .3 times less, experienced 38 minutes more lying time and were fetched more often. The cows’ limited mobility affected their frequency of visiting the automatic milker.
“Lameness is more serious,” Waterman said.
To improve hoof care, he recommends placing a footbath at the end of the row.
“Now she gets milked four times a day and gets a footbath four times a day,” Waterman said.
Changes to improving cow care and comfort are part of transitioning to an automated system. But Waterman said dairymen should expect milk production and frequency to change.
Herds switching to a robotic system milking twice a day experience an increase of milk 5 to 10 percent compared with manually milking. But bumping that up to three times per day decreases production 5 to 10 percent.
“To optimize efficiency, the goal is to have high milking frequency in early lactation and lower milking frequency in later lactation,” Waterman said.
Instituting frequent milking can help stimulate milk production as the cow is becoming established in her lactation.
Waterman said traffic flow to the milking system can either be free or guided. The free flow access represents when the animal chooses to access the robotic system. Pellet and udder pressure represent her motivation. This method is associated with greater milk production.
Cows can access the feed bunk, water or milker in any order. It’s the more individual system, suited to each cow’s preference. The free stall barn design requires limited gates for sorting and can allow for more cows per barn and per group. The cows tend to eat and rest more, and have the freedom of refusal. It also allows early lactation cows to be milked more frequently and results in higher milk production.
Guided access can be with either feed or milk first. With the former, the cow will go to the feed bunk before the milking. Then she is required to enter the milking system to get back to the stalls. With the later motivator, she must be milked first before she gains access to the feed bunk.
With all the changes taking place in the world of dairy, including more robotic milking systems, it’s easy for farmers and farm workers to miss important developments in farming.
Kathy Barrett, Dairy Profit discussion groups leader with Cornell PRO-Dairy, mentioned during the session that Dairy AdvanCE (www.dairyadvance.org), a free tool for dairy farmers, provides ongoing training for a variety of current farming issues. The site also helps farm owners track training to ensure that farm workers have completed the training that management assigns.
Waterman develops training programs to improve dairy nutrition and offers field support. Hailing from New York, Waterman earned degrees from SUNY Morrisville, Cornell University, and the University of Kentucky.
The Dairy Profit Seminars represent a collaboration among Cornell’s PRO-DAIRY, Northeast Dairy Producers Association and DairyBusiness & HolsteinWorld magazine. Empire Farm Days, an agricultural exhibition at Rodman Lott and Son Farms, features the series annually.