Farm robotics was the theme of Reasehealth College’s dairy conference for 2015 with both milking and feeding topics of discussion. Louise Hartley reports.
WITH the number of robotic milking systems rising all the time in the UK, Anthony Andrew of GEA Farm Technologies said farmers should consider investing in robotic feeding systems to improve their businesses.
According to Mr Andrew, there are 6,500 robotic feeding systems from more than 10 manufacturers installed on farms across Europe, but only five systems operational in the UK.
He said: “Unlike Europe, companies in the UK have not promoted automatic feeding as heavily as robotic milking.”
Most robotic feed systems consist of feed bunkers which are usually refilled daily. Feed is transported from bunkers to a feed kitchen where the total mixed ration is formulated and taken out to cows in carriers automatically via a steel framework.
Like robotic milking, robotic feeding is geared towards saving labour and improving accuracy. According to Mr Andrew, feed rates per litre could be reduced by 3-5 per cent when compared to a tractor and feeder wagon system.
“On dairy farms, one of the most important and labour-intensive tasks is arguably milking, meaning feeding is overlooked, but it is just as important, if not more so. Not only does feeding have a major impact on herd health and milk quality, but it is also labour-intensive and one of the biggest outgoing costs on a farm, at perhaps £6-7 per cow per day.
“Anything which can be done to bring down feed costs without compromising milk quality and yield will be of benefit to farmers.
“Automatic feeding can be up to 5 per cent more accurate than a mixer wagon and tractor and strips out the problem of over-mixing.
“Up to nine different feeds for up to 30 different cows groups can be mixed and dropped on to a cow’s feed table up to eight times per day.
“Every time the machine mixes and drops feed, it looks at what it did in the last 24 hours and tries to adjust the feed to improve accuracy – does the feeder wagon operator do this?”
Mr Andrew said automatic feeding allowed a higher stocking rate when it came to trough space, as only 25-30 per cent of cows come to the trough when feed is dropped.
“Anyone capable of driving a tractor can load bunkers and after that it is all automatic. The operator does not have to be an expert at feeding. Unlike robotic milking, expansion in cow numbers can be done at any time and cows get used to the system almost instantly.
“Once the ration is formulated and put into the system, and as long as the chains and conveyor belts are maintained, the day-to-day thinking of feeding is eliminated.”
Robotic feeders can accommodate herds from 30-1,200 cows, typically powered by electricity and transporting feed in carriers to troughs via steel pathways.
Different cow groups in the same shed can be fed via separate feed rows and feed can be transported outside to different sheds, as long as it is practical to erect the steel work.
Q: What is the average cost of an automatic feeding system for a unit milking 200 cows?
A: £90,000 for the feeding system, plus £10,000 to £15,000 for electric and steel work and £2,500 annual service contract.
Q: Is there a danger of silage heating up in the bunker as it can be sat in there for 18 hours, especially if dropped from a height and aerated?
A: In a hot climate, this could be a problem, but it is hardly ever seen with farmers in Europe. Air conditioning can also be installed to keep the climate at a consistent temperature if required.
Q: Is robotic feeding viable for farmers with multi-farm sites?
A: No. The system can work on sites with a number of sheds, however it cannot travel to multiple sites.
If youngstock or other cow groups are not kept on the main site, other feeding provisions would need to be made, perhaps keeping the tractor and feeder wagon.
Q: What is the ratio of installations into new buildings to those in existing buildings?
I would estimate the ratio to be 50:50, but feeding systems can be put into almost any building set-up.
Q: Can it be directed around old buildings and raised up to drop feed into high-sided feeders?
Yes it can go around old buildings, but it cannot go up steep slopes. Sites need to be fairly level, with a maximum slope of 2 per cent where feed is being transported. It can also be raised over feeders and gates.