Despite the opposition from some quarters, large-scale dairy units are an increasingly attractive option for some UK dairy farmers.
Those looking to scale up often also choose to install robotic milking systems at the same time, says John Cann, NWF southern cattle product manager.
He says: “Robots are promoted as having benefits not just for the cow but for the farmer as well. A labour-saving technology which can reduce labour costs and allow a better work/life balance for the farmer, robots also improve milk yield and cattle udder health via more frequent milking.
“Because cows [and workers] no longer spend hours in the collecting yard and parlour, more time can be spent observing cows, with consequent benefits for management,” says Mr Cann.
Observation data can then be added to that collected by the robot: cows are automatically weighed at every visit to the robot. Significant changes in weight/body condition score are then flagged and the cow selected for individual assessment.
“Robots rely on cows choosing to access them, so ease of movement is critical. Lame cows will not visit the robot, so foot trimming and bathing should be done routinely and investigations made into persistent lameness, particularly if flooring is thought to be the cause,” warns Mr Cann.
As with any technology, there are important aspects of housing design and cattle management which are critical to gaining maximum benefit. These include:
Cows must be able to move freely about the building to access feed, water and the robots. Bottlenecks and dead ends create potential bullying areas, which increases cow stress.
It is often thought space at the feed fence can be significantly reduced in robot milking systems. While it can be slightly tighter, too much reduction in space per cow will lead to less dominant cows eating less – studies show cows will not queue for a space at the barrier, preferring to go and lie down instead, and it can be some time before another visit to the fence is attempted.
Water troughs should be plentiful and have a fast enough flow rate to satisfy cow requirements. As robots usually increase milk yield, water intake will also increase – as a rule of thumb, water intake is three times that of milk yield.
“Cubicle design and availability is another critical part of building design. Cows spend around 11 hours a day lying down, so cubicles must be clean, dry and of the correct dimensions; ideally, there should be 10 per cent more cubicles than cows, so less dominant cows are always able to choose a lying space,” says Mr Cann.
Good building design is centred on encouraging ‘free cow traffic’ into the robot ie the cows choose to be milked frequently. Concentrates fed in the robot are a good incentive, as well as providing critical nutrients.
“It is important to allow 10 per cent ‘free time’ on the robot – timid, low ranking cows are unlikely to queue to use the robot, so need to see it empty before approaching,” says Mr Cann.