The milking robot supplies cow-related information unobtainable in a conventional situation, thereby making it possible to manage animals at an individual level in today’s situation. Management by exception is the new challenge. The idea is that management should spend its valuable time concentrating on the cows requiring attention. Furthermore, the concept of the ‘Licence to produce’ is introduced focussing on sustainable dairy farming with respect to people, planet and profit. With the milking robot, it is possible to supply an individual cow with all her needs for an optimal health, production and well-being, without the extra labor. The basis of successful dairy farming is the healthy and happy individual cow.
Start up procedure
Before the transition from conventional to robotic milking, it is very important to thoroughly consider what this will mean for your management. The robot will take a central place in the new situation and management should be adapted to this.
In the preparation phase it is recommended to visit several farms of the same size and with the same type of barn, in order to get a good picture of the way robotic milking works and what it involves in terms of farm management. The experience of fellow dairy farmers is an important help in introducing the milking robot successfully into the farming processes. A well thought out (written) strategy is essential in the entire preparation phase: it will consist of a housing plan, a detailed plan on daily, weekly and monthly work routines, cow routines, and cow and farmer routings. The entire project should fit into a long-term strategy, so every step should be thoroughly evaluated: where will you treat cows, dry off cows, etc.
In this phase pay also attention to the following aspects:
- Formulate and write down goals for introducing the robots, to look back at them in the months after the introduction.
- Consider the feeding strategy (please refer to Chapter 3). In many cases the crops and pellets need to be prepared to be fed in the robot, especially in places where till now only Total Mixed Ration (TMR) is used.
- Suitability for cows to be milked in the robot: singeing udders, cutting long hairs from the tail, optimizing claw health etc.
- Breed cows in such a way that you get less crossed teats or outstanding front teats.
- Prepare and understand the management program on-time, to prevent stress.
The location of the Astronaut milking robots must be carefully planned for appropriate cow routing in the barn. The robot room must always have a clean entrance. The robots should be clearly visible and easily accessible for all cows. This means plenty of space around the robot and a clear, straight routing to and from the robots. It is important, particularly in a barn with more robots, that incoming and outgoing cows do not cross one another’s path. More information on barn construction can be found in the brochure ‘Barn design for robotic milking’ or contact your local Lely Center.
When starting with robotic milking, it is recommended to start with 50-60 cows per robot and divide the group into two subgroups. For the first three days, the cows are enticed into the robot three times a day. This should be done in a very calm and patient manner, to prevent the cows from having a negative association with the robot. Within these three days, 75% of the cows will go to the robots on their own, after which the routing gates can be removed. Set the cows free (free cow traffic) and collect the cows that have a milking interval of more than 10 hours, four times a day. The number of times the cows are fetched is gradually reduced to twice a day, fetching only the cows with a milking interval of more than 12 hours (or more than 10 kg (22 lbs) of milk). Appendix 1 lists an instruction card, describing the procedure of the first days of the start up.
This start-up procedure decreases waiting times and assures proper intake of dry matter (DM) and water. Collecting too many cows too soon results in low ranking cows waiting until they are collected. These cows will consider the robot as a crowded and dangerous place. Hence, they will wait until they are collected by the farmer. This stresses the importance of remaining calm and patient the first weeks and to follow the instructions on collecting cows.
Lely recommends for the first few days a minimum of two people available per robot to guide the cows and to control the X-link. After two or three days, it is sufficient to have one person per robot.
Organizing the time schedule
The farmer’s daily time schedule changes when the robots are in use on the farm. The farmer no longer needs to milk the cows two or three times per day. This changes the routines that have become fixed in the daily business of farming. The milking robot gives farmers the opportunity to observe the cows in their own environment. Monitoring is simplified and any abnormal behavior of animals is easily noticed.
Changes in the time scheduling:
- Different, flexible working times because fixed milking times are history.
- More flexible working schedule.
- Shorter working times thanks to efficient management.
- Peaks in daily tasks are easily handled due to the freedom gained from milking by the robot.
- Time gained can be used outside the farm and/or for the management of individual animals.
Free cow traffic
With free cow traffic, the cows are free to move around the barn, from the feed fence to the robot, the cubicles and water troughs without hindrance from fencing or selection gates. Experiences and observations of many farms all over the world show that free cow traffic is the basis for successful robotic milking. It increases profitability through an optimal production and healthy cows. Lely research on various forms of cow traffic shows that free cow traffic is characterized by a higher milk production with less labor and a reduced risk of mastitis. Farmers applying free cow traffic provide their cows with the five freedoms and by doing so they will get the most out of their herd.
Ten reasons to opt for free cow traffic:
- More milk per cow (more rest and higher feed intake)
- Less lameness (more rest)
- Better for low ranking cows (less stress)
- Better fat-to-protein ratio (higher roughage intake)
- Higher feed efficiency and healthier rumens (through more frequent feed intake)
- More freedom and improved animal well-being
- Less labor and more milk per robot
- Less mastitis (through less stress and more frequent milking)
- Better social life of the farmer
- Lower costs (investment in gates), higher profit
For good visit behavior of the cows, the robot has to be easily accessible. Firstly, this means that there should be sufficient free time on the robot (at least 10%) so a cow can enter the robot whenever she wants. Free time means the time that the robot is freely accessible (the door is open). When there is less free time, especially low-ranking timid animals will not be milked enough, simply because they do not have the opportunity or they are afraid to do so. Animals that are not milked at least two times/day have an increased risk of udder health problems.
Secondly, space in front and around the robot is critical to achieve sufficient visits to the robot. This area is the busiest part of the barn, so any obstructions will disrupt cow traffic and reduce visits to the robot. On a farm with 120 cows on two robots with 3 milkings and 1 refusal per day, this means 120x4 = 480 cow passages in front of the robots. For a good accessibility, the robot has to be visible and easy to reach from anywhere in the barn.