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Robotic milking and mastitis control

As an unbiased party, vets can help farmers make the right decision over whether to invest in a milking robot

29 December 2018, at 2:26pm

Robots are becoming a more common way of milking cows. Farmers like robots because the process improves their quality of life and makes it easier to attract employees; they provide great data that allows farmers to improve performance and the robots give a consistent milking performance whenever the cow wants to be milked.

In the last decade, we have learnt so much more about robots and their technology has improved exponentially. Milk quality and mastitis levels have improved significantly. It is important that vets understand robots and how they function in relation to mastitis and milk quality.

Many farmers struggle to get truly independent advice. This is one of our strengths: we are independent; we don’t sell milking equipment and are able to offer an unbiased opinion to support our farmers.

There are so many questions that need answering for those who are thinking of moving from conventional to robotic milking; some examples include:

Do you like working with cows?

If you install robots, you still need to work with your cows; all you are doing is eliminating the chore of milking twice daily.

Do you have strong management skills?

All the robot will do is harvest the milk. It is up to the farmer to ensure that everything is working correctly and to maximum efficiency.

Do you like technology?

Farm staff should enjoy using the robot computer to get the greatest benefit from the system.

Does it make economic sense?

A milking robot is a big investment and the sums must add up.

Can you fit robots to your existing barns or should you build a greenfield site?

Some farmers have successfully placed robots into existing sheds; however, for others, this has proved unsuccessful.

Then there is a question about what type of robot the farmer should go for. Each will have unique selling points, and advantages and disadvantages over each other. A vital consideration is whether the dealer has skilled technicians for repairs, maintenance and support. We know that if a robot breaks down for a long time, things can get really out of control and the farmer can end up in a situation that is extremely difficult to manage.

A decision has to be made as to whether cows will be housed all year round or if cows will be grazing at certain times of the year. This can have big implications in terms of design of the facility and decision making.

These two robots are empty. Is this good or bad?
These two robots are empty. Is this good or bad?
This is the Lely dashboard. What are some of the KPIs?
This is the Lely dashboard. What are some of the KPIs?

Robot capacity is decided by the volume of milk harvested each day rather than the number of cows. Some cows are very robot efficient – that is, they know how to use the system to maximum effect and come in when they know that they will be milked and not rejected. Feed is the key factor that encourages animals to come to the robot. There are numerous important topics related to robotic milking; to begin, consider the following:

Cow cleanliness

It is essential that cows are kept clean to minimise clinical mastitis (Figure 1). This means having a well-designed housing system where cows lie down on clean beds. Most robot systems have cows housed all year round.

FIGURE 1 It is essential that cows are kept as clean as possible to minimise mastitis
FIGURE 1 It is essential that cows are kept as clean as possible to minimise mastitis

Spread of infection

Spread of infection will occur in any milking system irrespective of whether the herd carries out post-milking teat disinfection or cluster flushing after milking with a disinfectant solution. Robots rinse the liners with water after each cow, which helps reduce the amount of residual milk but does not sanitise. Most, but not all, robots apply post-milking teat dip through a fixed or moving spray nozzle.

Mastitis warning messages

It is easy to pick up a cow with clinical mastitis in a parlour. With robots, the farmer is totally reliant on technology. The robots detect mastitis in a variety of ways, including electrical conductivity and light emission through milk. Warning systems err on the side of caution and so there will be more warning messages than true clinical cases. This is a potential minefield and many farmers end up overtreating cows.

Cow flow

Cow flow and environmental management is key to success. Some people try to squeeze robots into existing facilities without fully considering the true impact of cow flow and acceptance. Cow flow is critical to success.

Labour input

Robots do not necessarily reduce labour input; people just work differently. With robots, you have to fetch cows for treatment and carry out lots of checks as you don’t see cows in the parlour twice a day. You have to work with the computer to find out where potential problems lie.

Milk yield

You need to feed cows well to make robots perform to their best. Lactation yield will reduce if you don’t achieve this. It is interesting that in early lactation, many animals, especially heifers, can be milked between four and six times a day. Robots will reject cows that were milked very recently.

Economics

It costs more to milk through a robot than a conventional system. Everyone agrees on this; the farmer is buying a lifestyle choice. However, well-managed systems use the time they free up from milking in a conventional parlour to improve management and so can increase yield and productivity. As a result, these systems can be more profitable and far more enjoyable places to work.

Peter Edmondson and Roger Blowey are running a two-day seminar on 12 and 13 February 2019 on robotic milking and mastitis control. This will be a very practical and interactive seminar with a visit to a robotic unit. There is also a problem mastitis herd for people working in small groups to resolve. This seminar will give vets the confidence and necessary skills to support their existing robot clients and those who are thinking of going down this route. The seminar will cover all these and many other topics in great detail. For further details about the “Robotic milking and mastitis control” seminar, visit: udderwise.co.uk

Peter Edmondson, FRCVS, runs UdderWise, a mastitis consultancy offering troubleshooting, training and advisory services for farmers and vets. He is known for his practical approaches and runs a range of mastitis seminars giving vets problem-solving skills.

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