Selecting the right cows for your robot

Cows that are milked in an automatic milking system (AMS) need to be healthy and productive, with correctly placed teats and healthy feet & legs to carry them around the barn and to the robot. But is that enough? Should we also be looking for cows with the right ‘robot’ temperament? New research suggests that cows’ performance in different housing systems can depend on their temperamental traits.

Cows in automatic milking systems need to have the same functional traits as cows in other milking systems, but in addition they also need an appropriate temperament; calm but driven. Francisco Rodriguez, Dairy Management Advisor, Automatic Milking at DeLaval Inc. and veterinarian, explains:

Like with other milking systems robot cows need to be healthy and have high reproductive performance and longevity, so we look for bulls with positive traits in productive life, pregnancy rate and somatic cell count.

Feet & legs and udder conformation are important. It doesn’t matter if the cow is tall or short, white or red, but she needs to have good locomotion and good teat placement. A lame cow is unwilling to move and will not go to the robot. She will not get milked nor fed and of course, in the end, she will be culled.

Udder conformation has improved a lot with modern genetics, but there has been a selection for bulls and cows that transmit close rear teats, which works well in a parlor, but can be difficult to find for the robot. If the robot can't attach optimally milking speed goes down, stall time increases and if the cows are not milked properly they might develop mastitis and the result will be milk quality problems.

Teat size is also important, and good consistency from cow to cow is preferable; if teat sizes vary a lot it can be difficult to choose the right liner.

Appropriate cow temperament for automatic milking

Cow temperament and behavior have an impact in many areas. Even a good healthy, high-yielding cow will be a problem if she doesn't behave in the robot.

Time efficiency and time usage are key in robotic milking, and a stressed or uncomfortable cow might start kicking in the machine, which will result in longer attachment time. Stall time increases and number of milkings goes down. This will impact the milk yield, resulting in less efficiency, a decrease in production and lower profitability.

Milking speed is also affected by the cow's temperament; a nervous animal will have an increased level of adrenalin, which can block the oxytocin reflex and interrupt the milk let-down. If the cow is not milked properly there is a risk she might develop mastitis.

“The milking behavior is really important, and hopefully the AI companies will start focusing on the evaluation of this. Some companies select on milking speed and dairy character, but not directly on cow temperament,” says Francisco Rodriguez.

However, to function well in an automatic milking system the cow needs not only be calm while in the milking box, she also needs to be driven: hard-working and willing to move and walk. The cow has to act on her own; nobody will fetch her to the robot. With lazy cows the cow flow and performance in the barn will be much lower than with driven cows.

“This willingness to move is of course also not only related to the health traits but also to herd genetics. We know that some blood lines are more aggressive than others, and work harder in a high performance environment,” says Francisco.

“We want animals that can work almost by themselves, since the farmer is not there all the time anymore. I believe people are underestimating the importance of this.“

The genetic selection

AI companies are working in this direction, selecting bulls with traits desirable for automatic milking.

"Semex Geneticists have developed our Robot Ready™ brand specifically for robotic dairy managers for use in their own genetic strategies," says Brad Sayles, Semex Alliance Vice President, Global Marketing. "These bulls sire the kind of cows that have correctly-placed teats so the robot can quickly find them, are very productive and have the functional feet & legs that will last for many lactations, easily moving them through the barns and to the robot. Another important element of the Robot Ready™ selection criteria is that we include workability traits that select for average to fast milking speeds and avoids nervous cows or poor temperament cows. "

An automatic milking system requires cows that walk to the robot, get the liners attached, let down the milk, get milked and get out by themselves, without anyone having to be present beside the robot. Is it possible to select for these traits?

Dutch zootechnician Kees van Reenen, PhD, explains that temperamental traits works like a predisposition, creating animals that are more vulnerable or more successful in specific situations. These traits may represent an additional selection criterion that should be included in breeding programmes.

In his PhD thesis (Identifying temperament in dairy cows. A longitudinal approach.) van Reenen shows that a cow’s temperament consists of multiple traits:

• fearfulness, (determining how frightened or excited an animal becomes under stressful stimulus),

• activity (cows differed consistently in how active they were when isolated briefly from their herd mates, e.g. in terms of locomotive behavior,)

• sociality, (defining the motivation to be with conspecifics, i.e other cows)

It is argued that traits of this kind may affect the “fitness” of dairy cows in terms of, for example, health, fertility and longevity. In addition to "classical" fitness traits in dairy cows, such as calving interval, lifespan, or measures of lameness and mastitis, temperamental traits may represent additional selection criteria that should be included in breeding programmes, with the aim of improving the "robustness" and welfare of the cows.

The research suggests that it is possible to measure temperamental traits in cows, and consequently to select cows with the appropriate temperament for automatic milking.

Van Reenen and his colleagues studied cows over time, from young age to first calving, and could show that there is a relationship between the temperamental trait recorded at an early age and a response in a milking parlour at a later age. Calves that were most vocal when isolated briefly from their herd mates, a sign of sociality, showed a faster milk ejection when machine-milked for the first time.

Other work published in the scientific literature seems to indicate that relationships may exist between fearfulness and the immune response to a mastitis infection, and between the level of aggression and the likelihood of becoming lame. This would suggest from a scientific point of view that temperamental traits may be an indicator as to how well cows adapt to practical husbandry conditions, i.e. how well they perform in a specific milking and housing system.

Different husbandry conditions might require cows with different temperamental traits

Social skills are probably not that important for cows that are tied up during winter and out on pasture in the summer. However, cows that are kept all year round in loose housing robotic barns with high cow density will need different temperamental characteristics.

Francisco Rodriguez described the appropriate AMS cow as calm but also driven, and Kees van Reenen agrees:

“There is a bit of a misunderstanding in that a good temperament in a cow is to not be very responsive. But we should not look for calm, non-fearful or non-aggressive animals per se, we need to look for cows with the appropriate response to challenges, i.e. appropriate for the husbandry conditions they are exposed to. This may in some instances mean that cows should be assertive in social terms, it could even be favorable for an animal to be aggressive in some situations.”

Van Reenen points out that this field has not yet been explored in enough detail. It is known that farm animals, including dairy cows, probably possess certain temperamental traits that are to some extent genetically controlled, but there is still a lack of information as to what is an appropriate temperament. There is a need for more information about the relationships (phenotypic, genetic) between, on one hand, differences in temperamental characteristics and, on the other, differences in ‘fitness’ characteristics (fertility, health, longevity etc), preferably from different environments, i.e. housing and milking systems.

Producers' own experience

As Francisco Rodriguez mentioned, producers have noticed that certain blood lines are more driven than others in their herd.

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Monica Wadsworth

Monica Wadsworth
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More information

Read the General Discussion of Kees van Reenen's PhD thesis Identifying temperament in dairy cows - A longitudinal approach

Contact Kees van Reenen at Kees.vanreenen[at]