A desire to cut labor needs is often the factor that drives dairies to adopt robotic technology, but according to University of Guelph’s Trevor DeVries, automation can, more importantly, have benefits from the cow’s perspective.
DeVries talked specifically about automation in the area of feed mixing and delivery during the Precision Dairy Conference. Using technology, he explained that farms can reduce variability in the total mixed ration (TMR) that is consumed by cows and the timing of that consumption.
“Cows love consistency,” DeVries stated. Looking specifically at nutrition, he said, “We know the rumen is going to work most efficiently when it has a consistent environment.”
The goal, then, should be to make sure feed is mixed and delivered the same way each day. However, DeVries said this can be difficult to achieve when feeding cows manually with human-operated equipment, as people are prone to errors and inconsistency.
“This is where we have opportunities for automation in the dairy industry from a feed mixing and diet delivery standpoint,” he explained. He said that automation can help take the variation out of diet preparation, feed delivery, and feed access.
During diet preparation, both handheld and equipment-mounted technology make it easier to test feed quality and more precisely measure ingredients to assure cows aren’t being over or under fed certain nutrients. Plus, if we can automate some of these checks and balances, “We are more likely to do them more often and do a better job,” DeVries said.
In the area of feed delivery, automation may allow some farms to feed cows more often. DeVries shared that when feed is delivered multiple times per day, cows have more consistent eating patterns, less sorting, better rumen health, and greater milk components.
“Cows with high intake and high production need to spend a lot of time, five to six hours, at the feedbunk across many meals, at least eight to 10 a day,” he said.
Access to feed is another key component of dry matter intake. “Feed needs to be consistently pushed up and available,” DeVries said.
He explained that push ups should not stimulate intake; rather, they should ensure that feed is available when a cow comes up to the bunk. If cows get up and head to the bunk following a push up, he said the timing is probably too late.
Frequent feed push ups can be hard to achieve on farms of any size, so this is another area where automation in the form of robotic feed pushers can add a whole new level of consistency.
DeVries emphasized that an empty or nearly empty feedbunk for long stretches of time can have a very negative effect on the feeding behavior of cows. “Make sure cows don’t run out of feed,” he stated. He shared that computer vision technology is becoming available to help measure how much feed is in the bunk and when spots are low.
“We can change our feeding management based on the information provided to us,” DeVries said.