Mastitis Council Meeting Focuses on Robotics

8/3/2013 7:00 AM
By Sharon Kitchens Maine Correspondent

PORTLAND, Maine — Mastitis/milk quality specialists, dairy producers, veterinarians, researchers, Extension specialists, students and people with an interest in the production of high quality milk gathered in Portland this past week for the National Mastitis Council Regional Meeting. They spent Tuesday and Wednesday talking about ways to strengthen milk quality programs and increase dairy profitability around the globe. Tuesday morning focused on robotic milking and planning for new facilities and evaluating current installations.

Anne Lichtenwalner, the 2013 National Mastitis Council regional program chair and Extension veterinarian with the University of Maine, said there is not yet a clear connection between how robotic milking may figure into controlling and/or preventing mastitis.

“On-demand milking may mimic the natural situation,” Lichtenwalner said. “The cow may have some control over when/how often she is milked. Also, it sounds like people using robotics may be doing more to manage cows for their comfort and health.”

According to Dr. Francisco Rodriguez, dairy management advisor for DeLaval, robots offer several technologies, including the ability to record milk production, daily meal weights, feed intakes, and the ability to measure milk quality with indicators such as conductivity and detection of blood.

“That helps us to develop algorithms that we can say if a cow is sick,” Rodriguez said. “We are near developments where we can even go further and test if cows are pregnant, in heat, or sick with ketosis or milk quality problems.”

What was clear from Tuesday’s speakers is that future technological advancements will be focused on automated milking systems. While the number of dairy farms in the U.S. with robotic systems is pretty low, the number is growing steadily.

Dr. Kasey Moyes of the University of Maryland’s department of animal and avian sciences, said there are several major challenges to dairy farmers considering switching from conventional milking systems to robotic systems, including cost, barn layout and training of cows.

Rodriguez encouraged anyone interested in switching to robotics to make sure their vet, nutritionist and all members of the farm’s advisory team are involved in the planning process to make sure management strategies are aligned with the way the facility is going to be built. He said it is as much about preparing the cows as the people.

“Once you turn on the robots what is planned is planned, and what you forgot you forgot, so it’s very very important to ensure everything is run according to what the vet, nutritionist and farmer expect,” Rodriguez said. “Once start up it is very important to follow-up on all those standard operating procedures.”

John Baker of DeLaval followed up with a presentation on the details of robotic systems and his perspective of installations he has worked with throughout the Northeast.

“One of the things you hear dairy producers talk about is, do I have to build a new barn?’ And in most cases they really need to, primarily for cow comfort,” Baker said. “Lot of barns we’ve retrofitted and put systems into, but this is pretty much what we discuss with a producer when they are looking at a new system.”

Baker said the first question he asks farmers is what are the objectives of the dairy and what are the benchmark numbers, or yield per day. Every farmer needs to target a high level of production, he said, and get in as many milkings a day as they can.

According to the Environmental Protection Agency’s National Agriculture Compliance Assistance Center, most cows are milked twice per day on most farms. However, many farms are beginning to milk three times a day to try and obtain a 10 percent increase in milk production. Some operations even milk a portion of their cows four times per day.

Baker said with automated systems, some farms do as many as five milkings per day.

“Obviously at the end of the day that’s what’s paying for all this automation,” Baker said. “We see producers that have lower yields per day, but we expect a higher target.”

His customers range from dairy farmers with one robot on a small farm to farms with up to 20 robots. “Grazing can be a challenge, but if the dairy producer is willing to lower his expectations a little bit, it’s achievable,” he said, adding that farmers interested in robots for their grazing herds should look into research from Future Dairy, a research and development program in Australia, which is doing rotational grazing and using two robots.

There are three ways dairy farmers can choose to set up their barns: free flow, which is the most common due to initial savings on equipment; feed first, which is the most popular in Europe and is the system where cows have access to get feed, but need permission go to the robot; and milk first.

One of the key factors is how a system is set up to guide cows after they are milked. This is where a financial investment is made in the installation of special gates to guide cows.

“To us, this is all about the dairymen’s choice,” Baker said. “We just have the technologies that we can put in the barns that can make the robot more efficient. In free flow, cows are going to want to eat, drink, and lay down. Early lactation cows probably have more of a desire to be milked. Depends on what is put in feed stations to entice cows to come in. I can tell you if don’t put anything in, they really don’t want to go.”

What a farmer feeds his cows determines the best cow trafficking system. If the farmer wants to feed only a little grain, he may have to go with milk first, because the main motivator for cows will be the ration at the feed pump. If a farmer wants to feed more grain, perhaps feed first would work better.

Baker said he works with a lot of people who have very little computer experience. He also works with farms that have a computer wizard on staff. Automated milking systems provide a phenomenal amount of data, but he said most clients in the U.S. only use around half what is available to them. In Europe and Canada, where the systems have been around longer, customers access more information.

Initial investment in a new barn and robotic system is high, with a robot averaging $200,000. Baker said the first unit costs the most because of electronics and supporting systems. Depending on the size of the operation, the robotic system considered and the level of complexity needed, the cost per cow ranges from $5,000 to $10,000. Most farms he works with have a minimum of 50 to 60 cows.

Baker said the biggest motivators to installing robotic systems are quality of life, flexibility and labor.

Rodriguez said younger generations of farmers don’t want to work as hard as their parents did. They want to have fun, and he said robotic systems could help ensure new generations are involved in the farm, because they remove some of the physical labor.

The downsides to robotics includes having to layoff staff and lack of time a farmer might spend with the cows.

“This is a new technology, a new way to run dairy farms, but it all comes down to basic management,” Rodriguez said.

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