“When an animal with the right genetic potential is housed in a well-designed AMS facility with excellent considerations for cow comfort, she will eat more, milk more and socialize in the right group, giving her good access to the robot so she can deliver high quantities of milk. Once her work is done, she will enjoy lying in a soft, comfortable bed.”
If you’re milking your herd with an automatic milking system (AMS), chances are you see your cows as robot customers. And as the saying goes: The customer is always right. Robotic dairy owners and herd managers should be asking themselves: “Do I have the right plan in place with detailed strategies and standard operating procedures to motivate and help my customers perform their best – or in other words, achieve their genetic potential?”
Installing robots at a dairy not only changes the way the operation runs, but more importantly, it allows each cow to reveal her natural behavior based on her DNA. The genetic behavior of the herd ultimately affects the reduction of on-farm labor. Studies show that AMS reduces annual labor per cow by 6.3 hours compared to conventional milking. Producers can further decrease their labor costs – as much as 30 percent – by including behavioral genetic traits in their breeding program. It’s then up to the owners or managers to design an operation – or environment – which motivates and pleases each animal.
Research shows that cows spend their time in a similar way at AMS farms compared to conventional milking dairies. What really makes the difference is the distribution of activities and the variability between animals. Good or poor management practices can highlight those differences, making consistency more important than ever.
Figure 1. Time budgets of dairy cows milked by AMS can be divided into five main activities.
This is the most important area of focus for an AMS operation. Maximizing eating times with appropriate feedbunk space and ration quality will drive higher dry matter intakes and better cow flow, helping to increase milkings and milk yields. While cows being conventionally milked spend 4.3 hours a day eating, an estimated feed budget for cows milked with AMS is 3.5 to four hours. Depending on milkings per day, cows spend 14 to 28 minutes eating concentrate at the robot. Cows lose their group synchrony in AMS, especially when it comes to milking behavior, but this is not necessarily true at the feedbunk.
In free-flow and feed-first cow traffic scenarios, most of the cows go to the feedbunk when fresh feed is delivered, suggesting that the industry standard of 24 inches of bunk space per cow is needed. In European countries, shorter bunk space has been working well when only forage is fed at the feedbunk and automatic feeding systems deliver the rest.
At farms in North America that are feeding a PMR (partial mixed ration) 2X and pushing up feed 4X to 6X, I recommend providing enough space at the feedbunk to avoid competition and bunk displacement of subordinate animals, which can cause problems such as sorting or dry matter intake loss and lower milk yields.
The cow traffic scenario that shows less group synchrony at the feedbunk is milk-first – the reasons have yet to be determined. Dairy producers using this system have noticed more individual cow patterns requiring less feedbunk space. Still, more research is needed in this area. Feeding and pushing up feed often maximizes the time cows spend at the feedbunk eating, which helps increase milk yields and milk frequency and contributes to lower fetch rates. Regular milkings also create opportunities for post-milking stand-up times of between 30 minutes and 2.5 hours. This helps ensure the teat canal is closed, reducing the risk of intramammary infections and making automatic feeding systems and rubber coverage in the feed alley good fi ts for AMS facilities.
Individual milk frequencies in AMS herds commonly go from 2X to 4X. Cows will lose the group synchrony and will visit the station individually. Fresh cows want to milk more often than mid-lactation or late-lactation cows. It’s important to understand that many factors can impact milk frequency, such as feeding management, cow flow, robot performance and herd size.
Planning with these factors in mind will help a producer achieve his or her objectives. One study reported that cows in free-flow systems were milked 2.4X to 2.8X, whereas cows in a guided cow traffic system were milked 2.5X to 2.9X. These results are not solely a direct effect of the cow traffic system but of the interaction of all the factors listed above, plus the percentage of cows fetched or milked involuntarily.
I have seen all kinds of numbers in all cow traffic scenarios, and at the end of the day, motivating the cows the right way will minimize labor costs. To define an efficient milk frequency for the herd and individuals, it is necessary to harvest 30 lbs per cow per milking. Based on this and depending on herd average, cows will need to be milked more or less often. In guided cow traffic, cows without milking permissions go eat or lie down. Return times to the smart gates in the first third of a cow’s lactation are 3.5 hours to four hours; it’s therefore important to ensure milking permissions in that time range to maximize milk frequencies. The system’s reports will tell you what the return times of your cows are. Cows in a free-flow system spend between two and three hours a day milking. This includes pre-milking and milking time in the AMS depending on milk frequency.
Amazingly, this is very similar to cows milked in conventional systems – of course under a lower level of stress, especially while waiting to be milked. As expected, bossy animals spend minutes in open waiting areas, while submissive animals can wait hours due to group hierarchy. This suggests that grouping strategies based on behavior and lactation number can be very beneficial.
Guided cow traffic barns need to be set up in a way that waiting areas and pre-milking times per cow remain lower than one hour. Long milking times have a negative impact on feeding and lying times, with an immediate effect on milk yield. There are three peaks of milking activity throughout the day: 5 to 10 a.m., 12 to 3 p.m. and 5 to 12 a.m. Feeding during low-activity times could help activate cow flow, increase milkings and give submissive cows the opportunity to avoid some competition.
AMS cows spend approximately 11.2 hours a day lying down. This is a very important activity, not only because of its impact on cow health and production but because if cows aren’t lying down, they are disrupting traffic by blocking the alleys. Bedding material has a major impact on lying times and cow lameness. When comparing sand bedding vs. mattresses in a typical freestall, cows lie down 12.5 hours or 11.5 hours, respectively. Although sand is widely accepted, the impact on equipment, as well as the return on investment, has to be considered beforehand. Provided the right cow comfort, cows will show their natural behavior. High-yielding cows invest more time working while cows with low milk frequency and low milk yields have longer lying times.
Often underestimated, the quality and quantity of water cows drink greatly impacts their milk production. Even though it only requires five to seven minutes of a cow’s time each day, milk is 87 percent water. It is essential for life, so we had better ensure its availability and accessibility.
Standing and socializing
Cows spend between five and six hours a day standing, whether standing in the stall or socializing in the alleys. High-yielding cows will spend more time standing up, especially in the feeding alley. Poor facilities or the wrong cow traffic design can lead to higher standing times, and therefore, higher lameness rates, which aff ects both eating and lying activities. Ensuring facilities are properly designed and set up is critical.
It’s all about the cow. When an animal with the right genetic potential is housed in a well-designed AMS facility with excellent considerations for cow comfort, she will eat more, milk more and socialize in the right group, giving her good access to the robot so she can deliver high quantities of milk. Once her work is done, she will enjoy lying in a soft, comfortable bed. Make sure you understand what your herd needs by providing the right tools for them to perform their daily work. With AMS, cows can go to a higher level.
This article was first published in Progressive Dairyman