Which breeding traits can improve the efficiency of cows on robotic systems?

Typically, less than 1% of cows cannot be milked through robots when moving from a conventional milking system. However, improving certain traits to fine-tune milking efficiency can enhance milking speed through quicker attachment and milking times.

Dairy XL

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Currently, 10% of cows are milked through robots in the UK. Lely now has 3,000 installations UK-wide, but this is estimated to double to 6,000 in the next five years.

Speaking at the recent Cattle Breeders Conference in Telford (25 January), Ben Nottage, Dairy XL account manager for Lely Atlantic, said: “Don’t throw the baby out with the bath water. Carry on using your current breeding criteria, because it has done you well until now, and a robot can milk 99.5% of your cows.”

However, he said making small incremental ‘tweaks’ to certain traits, such as milking speed, udder depth and cow stature, could equate to big gains and make robotic systems more efficient.

Mr Nottage said the more farmers intervened with cows, the less milk they made. He added that focusing on newer genomic traits for mastitis and lameness resistance could also help reduce the number of cows that need collecting, saving time. “None of these [traits] are do or die, but when you start adding them up, they make a big difference.”

He shared his advice with conference delegates.

  • Teat length

Robots are better at milking cows with shorter teats than parlours, provided the laser can detect them. This is because clusters tend to slip in conventional parlours, whereas the robot has an advantage, because there is no weight on the claw.

But improved teat placement and length can speed up attachment time, improving overall milking efficiency.

Do not select extreme bulls (below -1).

Heritability: 29%

  • Udder depth and stature

Robots can find it hard to detect very shallow udders on extreme stature cows.

“If you have been breeding for type and selecting plus 3 bulls for stature and udder depth, you end up with really tall cows and really shallow udders and the robot can’t find them [udders].”

Avoid extreme scores (+3 or +4) for body depth, in combination with stature and extreme shallow udders.

Heritability: 35%

  • Milking speed

Anecdotal evidence suggests cows that milk quickly through parlours often have high cell count, but this trend is not replicated in robotic herds because variable vacuum removes milk away from the teat quickly and cows are not waiting to be milked in collecting yards.

Milking speed also varies hugely within a herd. For example, data from one robotic herd shows three cows that gave the same milk had a range of milking times, with the best milking out in 3.15 minutes and the worst taking 7.28 minutes. There is huge scope to improve this at a herd level by selecting bulls that are positive for milking speed.

Heritability: 21%

  • Wellness traits and temperament

Mastitis and lameness in robotic herds are a challenge to manage because those cows must be segregated and treated. You can make labour and cost savings by reducing cases.

Start genomic testing heifers and assessing their resistance to disease and use this data alongside wellness traits for bulls.

Bad temperament cows can be challenging, too.

“Robot cows are instantly quieter, so these poor disposition cows show up quickly in a robotic system.

“The robot arm will far outlive the cow if she wants to kick it, but there is more to temperament than just being in the box.”

Bad temperament cows can be more difficult to train, collect and will move in the box affecting attachment time.

BOX OUT: Take-home messages:

  • Look at herd data and filter out the bottom 10% of the herd based on milking speed and attachment time
  • When you have filtered your bull choice to your final 30, using current breeding criteria, start to look at 1-2 other traits
  • If you want to install robots, start talking to your breeding adviser beforehand to make small tweaks to your breeding programme
  • Aim for 0% of cows that need fetching. You will never get to that, because there will be a cow that has a sore foot, for example, but you should target that