Experts at Fullwood Packo
know that when you are a farm family that has 250 cows, there can be heavy demands on labour for milking, and this is where robotic milking can greatly reduce the need for labour and give you a more flexible lifestyle. Milking is essentially voluntary and you need barn layouts that give you low-stress access when they have adequate space near milking stations, and providing the waiting cows with escape routes can reduce the need of fetching and improve the frequency of milking. Lame cows will attend less frequently, and you can prevent any lameness by making sure that you have comfortable stalls, clean floors in alleys, and effective foot bathing, all of which is emphasised for robotic dairies. When milking intervals are variable, it creates added challenges for foot bathing, handling and sorting, and the ability to deal with cows that have special needs.
Milking stations need proper cow routing and options for separation that address these challenges and thus ensure the labour savings that are expected. Gating, layout, and protocols make it possible for just one worker to complete all these handling tasks. You need to apply excellent management along with any guided or free traffic systems, or when the cows are fewer than the capacity. Western Europe, in particular, has widely accepted robotic milking and this has led to reduced labour on dairy farms, increase production, as well as an improved lifestyle for families on dairy farms that have been milking between 40 and 250 cows.
The Rise in Robotic Milking
That this technology has grown popular is evident from the fact of its fast rate of adoption. Worldwide, the number of robotic farms in the year 2009 numbered 8000, but just six years later, Barkema and others, suggested that there were now 25000 robotic dairy farms all over the world
. The effect that robotic milking has had on cow management and udder health, welfare, health and behaviour has been summarised in two very good reviews that have been published. Research information on many aspects of this technology is lacking, and in particular the design of the barns for robotic milking.
As any observations that have been made on the field are inconclusive, it is the practical experience reported here and gathered from commercial robotic herds that can be useful in identifying the priorities for research. 107 robotic farms in Germany, Denmark, Belgium, and the Netherlands reported an average saving of 20 per cent on labour, though there was a large variation among farms. New demands for labour have arisen in robotic farms, such as the fetching of cows that do not come voluntarily. There is a minimal effort if one or two cows need to be fetched, and where barns have logical cow gating and routing, this effort can be combined with the cleaning of free stalls. Owners who have closely monitored the measure of the success of robotic milking point to the average frequency of milking per cow. This typically ranges between 2.2 and 3.2, but as these results also include individual cows, it cannot be compared to the fixed -interval milking results.
Policies laid down in eastern Canada in 2010 have made it difficult for the expansion of operations, and this has resulted in robotic farms having fewer cows per milking stall. Cows that have a high milking speed will allow more cows and thus more production for every robot
, even though the occupation rate is the same. Tremblay and others (2016) report a box time of 6.84 minutes per milking with 2.91 milkings for every cow, and that every robot milks 50.5 cows and carries out 147 milkings per day.
Guided or Free Traffic?
Choosing between guided and free traffic can greatly affect the efficiency of labour and cow comfort and is thus an important factor that needs to be considered in the design of facilities for an automatic milking system. Commitment pens have been referred to earlier, and are gated areas that need to be by the side of robots or in front of them so that cows can't leave without being milked. A preselection gate or a one-way gate gives access to this pen. Earlier studies reported that guided traffic resulted in more frequent milking, less resting time and fewer manger visits.
There has been a thorough study and review of stress responses that were measured by blood cortisol levels, heart rate, stepping, and kicking during milking. While comparing free and milk-first guided systems of traffic, cows were given partial mixed rations and 3 kilos of concentrate in a stall for VMS milking.