It’s all about the cow - Milking systems with welfare first and foremost

Free flow cow traffic is at the heart of Lely’s robotic milking systems. We ask Lely Atlantic’s Farm Management Support Lead Mike Steele why it is so important for cow health and welfare. “One of the great things about working for Lely is that the focus is on the cow,” says Mike Steele. “When I was a practising vet I saw that many other systems are based around the people doing the work, but with Lely the cow is the focus and the reason to be.”

Management, Cow health, Milking


The principle of Free Flow Cow Traffic is central to that and influences the design of robotic milking systems but also underlies all of Lely’s automation systems, he explains. “It is all about focusing on what the cow wants and trying to match her natural behaviour as much as possible."

“With free flow cow traffic it is always the cow’s choice to go to the robot, but she also has the option not to.” Access to food at the robot is the cow’s main incentive for visiting the robot but it’s also important that the robots are always within sight and earshot of the cows. “If the cows can see and hear it, they are more likely to think about it,” says Mike.

Spacing and flow through the barn can help minimise any bullying within the herd. “Usually 70% of cows are in the lower social hierarchy which means that the majority of the herd is at risk of not reaching their lactation potential.” With this in mind it’s important to eliminating any ‘blind ends’ in the barn and that there are gaps between each block of 15-19 cubicles. This also gives all cows easier access to water and feed. The waiting area around the robots must be big enough too, he adds. Mike recommends there is at least a 5 metre gap around the robots so that lower ranked cows have plenty of space to get into the robot around the more dominant ones.  

The design of the Astronaut gate has this in mind too, he adds. “The gate is a v-shaped system so the cows come in and out at the front of the robot. It means there is less of a physical barrier for cows to block the gate entrance or exit.”

Free flow cow traffic helps minimise the stress experienced by cows by reducing any adverse interaction with more dominant members of the herd and ensuring they have adequate access to the robot, food and water. The impact of this on productivity cannot be underestimated, says Mike.

More frequent visits to the robot and increased feed and water intake are all associated with increased yield. However by reducing stress and increasing energy intake by ensuring a free flow cow traffic system a cow can also have a more robust response to any health problems, says Mike.

“Any form of disease is affected by her immune response. Transition disease such as metritis as well as mastitis and ketosis are all more likely where a cow doesn’t have enough in reserve to fight infection.” This is particularly important for the highest yielding cows who have the narrowest energy margin.

Free flow cow traffic can also improve fertility. “Stress can definitely affect egg quality,” says Mike. “This is all very well researched plus there is a lot of anecdotal evidence from our customers saying how much they prefer the new system where the cow makes her own choices."

“Robotic systems are so much quieter with much less disturbance for the cows, which is really important. Once the cow has eaten she needs to be able to lay down and ruminate, break the fibre up and get more energy out of that grass. The more chance she has to do that the better and that is of course corelated directly to more milk.”

Where a robotic system is created on a greenfield site the whole design is based around these considerations, says Mike. “But of course, a lot of farmers converting to robotics use existing buildings. It is absolutely possible to convert a building but we need to invest a little bit of time and money on ensuring we avoid problems.” For example a building may need to be extended to avoid blind ends, or more water troughs installed to ensure the 10cm linear access per cow recommended.

Lely Atlantic’s Farm Management Support (FMS) team can help before setup as well as with after care if any problems arise. “We can hold your hand through that and be an interface with your vet and other advisors too.”

To find out more about the health and welfare benefits of free flow cow traffic and robotic milking contact your local Lely Center