Automated milking systems are a substantial investment, but in return, many benefits can be gained from this style of dairy herd management. For producers, less labor or more flexible use of labor is a major plus that can lead to an improved quality of life. Greater milking frequency and milk yield, along with improved cow health and reproduction, are benefits that can lead to greater profitability.

Improved quality of life can also be experienced by the cows. Robotic milking allows cows more behavioral freedom to milk when they want to. New facilities can lead to better health for the animals.

It can be anywhere from disappointing to financially devastating when these benefits aren’t realized. During the May Hoard’s Dairyman webinar, University of Guelph professor Trevor DeVries pointed to four impediments to success in robotic milking systems.

The first impediment is cows that cannot be milked when they want to be. These are situations when cows are not able to get to the robot or do so in a consistent matter, and having cows go to the robot consistently is key, DeVries said.

The biggest hurdles that prevent cows from milking when they want to are barn design and management of facilities. The barn layout and traffic flow help move cows to and from the robots. Stocking density of the robots, stalls, and feedbunk can also influence cow movement and how they decide to spend their time.

The second impediment is cows that don’t want to go to be milk. This could be related to the facilities or the cows themselves, DeVries explained.

“Probably the biggest contributor is the mobility of the cows,” he said. “A lame cow is typically lame because she has pain in her leg or hoof, which restricts mobility and reduces the desire to milk voluntarily.” High rates of lameness are problematic, he noted, because cows that are not willing to go to the robot are much more likely to need fetching and will probably also make less milk.

DeVries said the barn features that help prevent lameness in conventional systems also benefit cows in robotic barns. A lower prevalence of lameness has been found in barns with greater stall width, more lunge space, deep sand bedding, lower stocking density, and more bunk space per cow.

Poor udder health management is the third impediment. Although some farms will see udder health changes when switching to a robotic milking facility, it typically has little to do with the robots and more to do with the changes in housing and management, DeVries said. This can include stress, hygiene, and cow health factors caused by the environment the cows live in. So, barn design and management that reduces the amount of time cows stand in dirty alleyways or lie in dirty stalls can help the robotic milking system maintain excellent milk quality.

“Once we manage those things properly, those concerns with udder health and milk quality tend to go away,” DeVries said.

The final impediment to robotic milking success is improper nutritional management. In a robotic milking system, feed availability all hours of the day is very important. Fresh feed delivery and frequent feed push-ups — either done manually or with an automated feed pusher — helps encourage cows to get up to eat and be milked. Robotic milking also provides an opportunity to meet individual cow production needs and push high production cows through precision feeding.

In general, cow health, welfare and productivity can be optimized in a robotic milking system when we ensure cows have time and space to milk voluntarily, maintain a clean and comfortable environment, and provide continuous feed access and good nutritional management. To hear more from DeVries, watch the May Hoard’s Dairyman webinar, titled “Managing for success with robotic milking systems.” This webinar was sponsored by Galaxy.

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May 18, 2023

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