Robots in the dairy industry
Precision dairy farming, which includes the use of automated computerized systems to milk or feed dairy cattle, has been increasing steadily in the dairy industry in recent years. These systems represent significant advances in engineering, computing, and manufacturing. Minnesota has the largest number of automated milking systems (a.k.a. robotic milking systems) of any state in the U.S. Great service, knowledgeable sales people and interested producers have helped drive the growth of this technology. Minnesota also has a very good number of automated calf feeding systems in operation.
Jim Salfer and I have been conducting a field study on automated milking systems (AMS) in Minnesota and western Wisconsin. We started our project with a survey of approximately 30 producers in the region who had installed AMS. We wanted to learn what were the main reasons they decided to go in that direction, how the system was working for them, what were their feeding and management practices, and collect some initial data from the AMS. We also did a quick evaluation of cow welfare by scoring cows for locomotion, hygiene and hock lesions. Those of you who attended the Dairy Management Workshops in early February had a chance to hear Jim give a summary of our results so far. We are planning a follow-up study to learn more about cow behavior.
One very consistent answer we heard to the question of why to use AMS was "quality of life". Producers enjoy the time flexibility AMS offers. They are still working with the cows, but in a different capacity and also have more time for management work. They can go to their kid's game at 5 p.m. because they no longer have to be in the barn or the parlor at that time to milk cows. Human health was also another reason for those who moved from a tie-stall barn. Producers commented that cows are calmer and easier to handle. Milk production stayed the same or increased a little, and SCC increased initially then dropped lower than previous system.
What brings cows to the AMS is feed. Most dairies were using pellets, which improves feed utilization and is preferred by the cows instead of a meal. Use of a very palatable pellet is important. Cows receive a partial mixed ration (PMR) in the feed bunk and are supplemented with the pellet in the AMS for different levels of production. Most producers were feeding a minimum of 2 pounds and a maximum of 19 pounds in the AMS. Approximately 50% of the producers had the ability to feed two products in the AMS. Most were using roasted soybeans as the second feed. It is not very easy to balance rations when using AMS. It takes a different way of thinking.
Training cows to use the AMS is challenging. It is a 24-hour job for a period of time. Most producers indicated that it takes a very intensive 3 days, a very busy 3 weeks still pushing quite a few cows, and after 3 months, most cows voluntarily come to the AMS. Then life is easier. There will always be a small number of cows that need to be fetched and brought to the AMS. The majority of herds in the survey were using a free flow rather than a guided flow system.
Some of the critical aspects of making AMS work well for producers included (but are not limited to):
- Feeding. It is essential to feed an adequate, well balanced PMR and a palatable and nutritious pellet in the AMS; this also helps with cow flow.
- Cow health. Any health problem that cows have will reduce the number of visits to the AMS and increase the need for fetching cows. Hoof health is especially important.
- Manager. It takes a certain type of manager/herdsperson to work with AMS. Cow observation is still very important.
- Financial aspects. Cash flow is very tight in the first couple of years so one needs to be prepared. Concerns were expressed about replacement of AMS components after end of warranty period. Like any equipment, AMS requires good maintenance to operate at optimum capacity.
- Learning a new system. It takes some time to be comfortable with the software, equipment, and a different way of managing cows.
- Cleanliness. Keeping stalls and alleys clean so udders are clean can help the AMS find each teat and improve throughput. It is also important to singe udders on a regular basis.
Our research team will also conduct a study with automated calf feeders, another technology that is becoming more common in Minnesota. The goals of the study are to learn best practices that optimize the use of automated calf feeders. These systems offer some advantages related to labor costs, calf social interactions, and public preference, but need to be used properly.