A first lactation heifer’s initial experience in a voluntary milking system or robot is so important to the cow and the farmer. Sometimes it gets a little difficult to actually get the cow to go into the robot for the first time, and we have to remember that it is okay. Don’t get frustrated; let the experience take a little longer than you would like. They won’t forget this one experience, so make it count. You are putting them through something that eventually you want them to want to do on their own.
When I put a fresh heifer in the robot for the first time, I actually let her stand there for a minute or two while feed is dropping and she is trying to sniff every part of the robot. They are jittery and uneasy at first, so it is our job to make them feel extremely comfortable. I adjust the feed pan to make her more confined. After a minute or so, I take the teat wash cup, manually turn it on, and just rub the leg and the side of the udder while it is making noises. I want them to understand that this hose and cup aren’t going to harm them.
After they seem calmer, I will manually start to wash the teats with the wash cup. Once that is done, I manually hook all the teat cups up and let her milk. I do not walk away, even if it seems like she might be doing okay and is calm. Sometimes you have to rehang the cups a few times to really get the cow to let its milk down.
By the time milking is complete, the cow is pretty calm and realizes it has been a decent experience. I let the robotic arm move under them to spray the post disinfectant spray. Once all this is done, I release the cow to the pen.
Sometimes all it takes for them to become calm in a robot is just one milking. For other cows, it takes two or three. We make note of how well they did and truly keep our eyes on them the first 10 days until we feel comfortable enough to let them on their own with less monitoring.
If the cow has a bad experience in the robot, she will take much longer to train and might never go in on her own. I try to express to all my employees how important this experience is for a cow. You have put so much money and time into the animal to get her to this point. It’s time to see if she has what it takes to be part of this herd. The start of the first lactation is one of the most significant times of the cow’s life.
Mark and Caitlin Rodgers are dairy farmers in Dearing, Georgia. The Rodgers have a 400-cow dairy that averages 32,000 pounds of milk. Follow their family farm on Facebook at Hillcrest Farms Inc.