Feeding Cows Successfully at Robot Dairies

3/1/2014 7:00 AM
By Charlene M. Shupp Espenshade Special Sections Editor

Charlene M. <\n>Shupp Espenshade


Robotic milking is a way dairy farmers can free themselves from a strict schedule of milking cows two or three times a day. Yet, even though the way cows are milked has changed, good cow management is still important.

“If (the farmer) is not a good cow person, the computer is not going to make them a good cow person,” Ben Smink, Lely farm management specialist, said during this week’s Tech Tuesday webinar sponsored by Penn State’s Dairy Extension Team.

Speaker Charlie Gardner of Cargill Nutrition said he’s been introduced to robotic dairying as several client farms have opted into the system. Robotic milking is definitely here to stay, he said, but farmers still have to focus on cow comfort and quality forages.

“I’m still learning,” Gardner said of working with robotic dairies. Some have have had success, but others have not been so perfect.

Gardner spoke of the three farms he consults with that have made the transition to robotic milking. One converted a tiestall barn to freestall with a robot.

The second farm has a retrofitted freestall barn. The conversion started out well, but ran into roadblocks due to feed-quality issues and dropping milk production.

The third farm is a new build with 225 cows.

The first and third farms are averaging about 80 pounds per cow per day. The herds Gardner works with are in a free-flow system, where the cows can move freely to the bunk or robot for milking.

There are some definite changes when consulting for these farms, Gardner said. First, the ration has to be balanced to provide an incentive for the cows to head to the robot to meet all their energy needs.

When balancing a ration, Gardner said he shoots for about one-half of the grain to be in the ration and the other half fed at the robot.

This system can be challenging for herds with mediocre milk production or high-energy forages because the cows may lack a desire to head to the robot.

When formulating a ration for a robotic herd, he focuses on producer goals. Do they want to start out with balancing the ration for current production or for their milk production goal?

Also, when he formulates a pellet that works for the ration, he will stick with the pellet and adjust the ration elsewhere. He said it’s important for the pellet to “taste good” and he avoids blood meal, corn gluten or excessive minerals that could be distasteful.

For herds with high-energy forages, a guided flow system may be better because the cows will have to go through the robot for feed, Gardner said.

“If things are not working,” he said, “it’s a good idea to get the nutritionist and the robot technician together on the farm to find a solution.”

Farmers also need to calibrate the robot feed dispenser to make sure the proper grain dose is fed to the cows. “Don’t overlook this.It takes five minutes to calibrate,” Gardner said.

Success with robots does go beyond the ration, Smink and Gardener agreed.

Cows need to be bred back to avoid stale or long lactation cows. Gardner said that his robot herds used activity and rumination monitors, and he has “heard positive reports on them. They can catch cows in heat.”

The monitors work by notifying the farmer if a cow demonstrates any abnormalities in their routine associated with coming in heat.

Foot health is also important because if the cows have sore feet, they will be slow to walk over to be milked.

Smink said he discourages overcrowding in robot barns. Studies show that days to first breeding increased and somatic cell counts could increase.

Also, he said that producers have told him that before investing in a robotic milking system, farmers need to “make sure the cows are clicking” and to visit other farms and speak to current robotic dairy farmers about their experiences.

“You don’t buy robots on the kitchen table,” he said.

Making a Successful Transition

Gardner said that when he spoke with a successful Wisconsin dairyman about his robotic dairy herd, the producer had several key tips about operating a successful robotic milking herd.

The dairyman had a production average of 104 pounds of milk per cow per day using four robots with 247 cows.

Cow comfort is important. The farmer said the new barn had deep bedded sand and provided an improved environment for the cows, resulting in a production improvement.

Fresh cows should have a separate area for better management. The farmer was also fanatical about forage quality.

Other items for success included genetics, a well-designed facility and the use of Posilac or rBST.

Smink recounted the details from a study regarding farms that successfully moved into the robotic system.

Researchers surveyed 100 farms, first looking at their operations three months before the move and then one year after the startup of the robotic dairy.

They found that the farms had an average production bump of 6.3 percent but the type of barn, new or retrofitted, did not affect the yield improvement. Milk quality and reproduction also improved.

Cull rates dropped, but Smink discounts this because he expects farmers are looking to fill their barns, holding onto cows longer.

Editor’s note: To listen to the full webinar, visit http://bit.ly/lancaster-farming-322.


Would you allow a natural gas pipeline to cross your farm?

  • Yes
  • No
  • Unsure

User Submitted Photos

View photos      Submit your photos

10/23/2014 | Last Updated: 1:30 PM