Dairy headlines, scientific data and discussions over the farm fence are piling up data that says the move to robotic milking sees ever higher levels of uptake among dairy operations. The focus has moved beyond the simple analysis of pros and cons to finding more data on ways to get the most milk production per robot. The simple conclusion is that everything that impacts the cow — before, during and after visits to the robot — could affect her milk production. As complicated as that sounds, it is simply a question of focus.
“Use Both First Hand Experience and Second Hand Information”
There are many ways to learn how others get more milk from their robots. Robotic milker suppliers can point you to their successful clients. They will dazzle you with positives. An internet search will give you many more names to consider and perhaps even reach out to. Be prepared to learn that some of these dairy operations have had remarkable accomplishments. No one will direct you to someone who is struggling with an automated milking system. Nevertheless, you should seek out things that have been proven, how problems have been corrected and, most of all, how to get more production. Regardless of our sources of information, it’s up to you to do your due diligence.
“We Hear About LESS Labor and MORE Milk. Are the Claims True?”
The attraction to robotic milking pulls dairy operations toward making the change with the promise of decreased labor and increased milk production. These claims are backed up by the majority of research which shows that installing robots and increasing milking frequency from 2 times per day to 2.5 or 3.0 times on average which results in 6 to 10 pounds more milk per cow per day. You will find that any claim beyond that is impacted by factors not directly robot related such as cow comfort, improved reproduction, and superior management. The facts regarding less total labor aren’t as dramatic. It is different. Start times may be later, and there is definitely more flexibility. But, to have the best management, you have to be on call at all times. Finding a positive way through this learning curve is the first challenge faced by both the human and the bovine teams.
“Scientific Studies Draw Conclusions That You Can Act Upon”
We should always acknowledge that we could be taking results out of context. Furthermore, we tend to judge what we learn based on our experience, and those experiences create bias. All we can do is make decisions based on the best information available. There are several Canadian studies and also reports from the University of Minnesota and some out of the Netherlands as well. These are just a few samples of what is available online. They have a lot of information, and they report what strategies have the biggest impact on milk production. Here are six that rise to the top of the lists.
“LET’S LOOK AT THE TOP SIX MORE-MILK MAKERS”
- Come again! And Again! Frequency wins!
You hear it from every source. One of the main factors impacting robot milk production is the frequency of visits. If cows could read, we would post signs encouraging them to “Visit the Robot! Don’t Stay Long! Come back often! “It’s simple. If you want more milk, you have to have more frequent milking times. This begs the next questions, “How do you get cows to voluntarily come to the robot more often?” How often is often enough? What is the best? Most experts and studies suggest that the goal should be to average 2.7 to 3 milkings per cow per day. When dairy operations fail to meet this benchmark, they make it a priority to review robot efficiency, nutrition programming, and pre-and-post robotic farm environment setup.
- “Effective Management Makes More Milk”
Robots require a high level of management to be successful. You may work less (than in parlor setups), but you must manage more! When you have the cows coming to the robots frequently, you have to stay on top of every detail that can impact the success of those visits.
At herd level: Monitor visits per day. Target average milking speeds. Provide sand or water beds for cow comfort. Remove hair from udders and trim tails. These and some tasks, such as treating cows, can take more time than in a parlor setup.
Around the Barn: Slatted floors, robotic scraping and keeping up with equipment maintenance have proven to increase milk production.
Genetic Selection: Not all cows are well suited for robotic milking. Sire selection and breeding for cows with easier attachment rates and improved milking speed present new challenges.
In the Office: Effective dairy managers take responsibility for the success of the dairy, and a large part of that is effectively managing all the incoming data captured by robotic systems.
- “Feed is the MAGNET That Pulls in More Visits!”
The single biggest factor affecting voluntary visits is the feed that is fed at the robot. Typically, cows receive a pelleted feed at the robot: some farms feed ground corn or other grains. If only we could learn from fast food drive through restaurants, we would have the cows lining up at all hours of the day. Since we don’t gain from feeding extra large unnecessary portions that lead to overweight, we will have to settle for the idea of attracting our cow-customers to the robot.
In contrast to the “junk” food that some humans crave, the feed offered at the robot must be of consistent high quality and palatability or cows will be discouraged from visiting the robot and thereby decrease the number of milkings per cow per day. Feed offered should complement other feeds being fed to the cows at the feed bunk. It isn’t necessary to feed a full ration at either place. Ideally, the feedbunk provides a partial mixed ration formulated at a lower energy content. The balance of the energy needs are provided at the robot. Pellet quality, ingredients, quantity and palatability all play a role in getting the cows to voluntarily return to the robot and, thereby, they help increase (or decrease) milk production.
- “Provide More Robot Availability. Avoid Lineups and Crowding”
Since there isn’t a robot for every cow, any time that there is blocked access to a robot it negatively affects milking efficiency. Blockage may be caused by cows congregating around the entrance either before or after milking. Proper design of robotic milking facilities can prevent some of these blocking events from occurring. If the area in front of the robot is small, locate water sources and cow brushes away from the entrance to the robot so as not to encourage cows to congregate in the area.
A higher stocking density (cows per robot) can also result in fewer milkings per cow. A target of 60 cows per robot is typically recommended. In the study, dairy farms averaged 55 cows per robot. A survey of robotic miking dairy farms in Pennsylvania found an average of 56 cows per robot with a range of 47 to 64 cows per robot. In general, farms in the Pennsylvania study with fewer cows per robot had greater milking’s per cow per day and greater milk production per cow. The conclusion: Crowding costs cash!
- “Robot Access Means No Obstacles, More Space and Good Footing”
Cow traffic to and from the robot is a large part of robot success. Easy access to the robot is a significant factor in the frequency of visits per cow per day. Obstacles interfering in the path to the robot as well as difficult entryways can deter cows from milking. Cows also need to have adequate space between the robot and surrounding areas. If holding pens or the area in front of the robot are too small, cows will be discouraged from entering.
Access to the robot can also be encouraged through proper care and management of your herd’s feet and legs. Cows need to have good locomotion and sound hooves to be comfortable walking back and forth to the robot. Scheduling regular hoof trimmings and providing access to footbaths can prevent issues from developing.
- “Yes! More Milking Speed Counts!”
You can’t deal effectively with getting cows into and out of the robot, without giving consideration to the actual speed of getting the milk. Slow milking time reduces cow throughput and decreases the amount of milkings achieved each day. Many of the top producing robotics herds measure milk flow as compared to milkings per cow per day. From entry to exit, the milking process should take, on average, seven to eight minutes per cow. It’s recommended that herds should strive for less than seven minutes and start to investigate potential issues when milking length exceeds eight minutes. The actual milking unit attachment can also influence time taken per cow in the robot. Milking units that locate the teats quickly and efficiently will reduce the time per cow spent in the robot, freeing up extra available time for other cows. The more time the robots actually spend with cows who are putting out maximum flow will result in greater production than just counting the number of cows per hour or visits per day. That is why many top herds allow their top producers to visit more frequently while cows that are later in lactation or lower producers allowed fewer visits.
The Bullvine Bottom Line
Robotic dairy operations continually strive to improve efficiency and increase production. The starting point for more milk is more frequency. Work with your whole dairy team – nutrition, environment, herd health and staff – to get their best input on ways to make sure you are doing everything possible to attract cows to visit the robots more often. When you effectively focus on getting more robot visits per cow, you will automatically produce more milk!