Which cows perform best in automatic milking systems?
Equipment specifications and options get plenty of attention when dairy producers start planning a robotic milking setup. But don’t get overly caught up in all the bells and whistles that go along with the new technology, advises robotic milking consultant Jack Rodenburg of DairyLogix in Woodstock, Ontario. You’ll want to give some thought to what kind of cows you’ll be milking, too.
"To say that you need a special kind of cow in this kind of system is probably going a little bit too far," Rodenburg says. "Most cows can adapt very easily to robotic milking. But at the same time, if you are thinking about switching to robotic milking four or five years down the road, there are definitely some things you’ll want to do differently when it comes to selecting and managing animals."
Rodenburg retired from his 34-year-long career as a dairy Extension specialist for the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture in 2008. He founded DairyLogix soon afterward. The company specializes in working with dairy producers throughout Europe and North America on barn design and management of robotic milking.
The first robotic milking system in North America was built just 20 miles from Rodenburg’s office in 1999. "It was pretty logical for me to take an interest in the technology," he says.
Milking speed tops Rodenburg’s list of characteristics that producers need to consider when contemplating a switch to milking cows in a robotic barn.
"In most of our big parlors today, we don’t pay a huge amount of attention to milking speed because it doesn’t affect the bottom line all that much," he says.
"In a robot barn, if you can get every cow milked in one minute less at each milking, you can increase the capacity of the system by 12%," Rodenburg explains. "That reduces the capital cost of the investment because you can milk more cows per robot."
Steps you can take now to address the issue include: keeping track of milking speed, choosing sires that will likely improve milking speed and culling out cows that take an extremely long time to milk.
Udder conformation is another trait that takes on added importance when cows are milked with robots. According to a 2012 study, cows with poor udder conformation experience slower attachment and higher attachment failure rates. They’re also twice as likely to require fetching, which means giving up some of the labor-saving advantages that draw many producers to robotic milking in the first place.
"Robotic systems do tend to have problems with cows whose rear teats are touching because the lasers can’t differentiate between them. Even if they could, how do you attach an inflation to one teat when they’re tight together without some physical action of pulling the udder skin to separate the teats?"
That means you’ll want to select sires whose daughters have good teat placement. "Make sure that there is some width to the rear udders."
The good news, Rodenburg says, is that the industry has made tremendous progress in this regard. "Over the course of my lifetime, the udders on cows are looking a whole lot better today than they did 30 years ago," he says.
The role genetics plays in the willingness of cows to visit a milking station in a robotic setup is an area Rodenburg believes merits more attention. "There is definitely wide variation among sires and cow families for how frequently the animals come to the robot voluntarily. It’s a behavioral trait that the daughters of some bulls typically come to the robot three times a day, while the daughters of others come twice a day or a high percentage of them have to be fetched for milking."
He points to a German study showing the heritability of this trait is around 0.16 when measured in early lactation and 0.22 in late lactation. "It’s clearly something we can select for," Rodenburg says.
"I would encourage the AI industry and the milk recording industry to start keeping track of it and actually proving their sires for their daughters’ willingness to visit robotic milking stalls," he says. "Producers thinking about milking in a robot barn should be encouraging these support industries to look into these kinds of things."
Rodenburg says feet and legs also take on even more importance in a robotic milking system. Bottom line: Cows have to be mobile enough to walk to the milking unit.
"A lame cow is a problem cow in a robot herd because she will not go voluntarily to the milking stall," he notes. "She becomes a cow that you have to go fetch. She’s going to visit the stall less frequently, and that’s going to hurt her milk production."
Since lameness and leg conformation are not quite as heritable as some other things, addressing problems is going to be more a matter of animal management than breeding, Rodenburg says.
"So many different things come into play. Lameness can be influenced by nutrition, cleanliness of the barn, resting behavior, hoof trimming protocols, preventative and corrective treatment and more," he says.
"Taking a close look at all of these is something you should be doing, whether you’re going to be in a robot barn or a conventional parlor system. It will make you money," he concludes.