Survey of Ontario dairy producers shows increasing rate of robotic milking herds in the province

Ontario dairy producers started using automatic milking systems (AMS) in 1999. Although the adoption of AMS technology was initially slow, an increasing number of dairy producers are now using these systems on their farms.

In the past three years, the number of AMS herds has risen by 400 per cent. Today, more than 200 Ontario dairy farms use the technology. In the summer of 2013, the Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs and the University of Guelph developed a questionnaire to gather information about the current use of AMS in Ontario. The information will eventually be shared with producers who are currently using an AMS, or those who are considering switching to one. The data will also act as a benchmark and potentially identify areas for future research.

A total 33 AMS herds from across Ontario, using either a Lely or DeLaval milking system, participated in the study questionnaire. The project consists of three parts: an interview with each producer to gather management and production information, obtaining samples of feed, pellets and water from each farm, and collecting various production reports. Each farm's partial mixed ration, feed offered in the robot, and livestock drinking water, were also sent for laboratory analysis.

Herd production information was obtained from the farms' robotic herd management software. Post Lely Centre and Norwell Dairy Supply Systems Ltd. collaborated to develop a unique electronic production report specifically for this project. The report was downloaded on the same day as the farm visits to obtain selected production, management and nutrition data for each cow. For herds using CanWest DHI services-79 per cent of farms in the study-the DHI tests closest to the visit date were obtained after getting the producer's consent.

For the 33 participating farms, the average days in milk were 173.9, compared with the provincial average at 181.8. The average milking herd size was 88 cows, slightly larger than the provincial average of 78 cows, and the average milk production was 31.5 litres per cow per day. This was slightly more than the provincial average of 30.5 litres per cow per day. Producers who installed robots generally reported an increase in their cows' milk production after the installation. This is typically seen in herds milking twice daily before installing robotic milkers, after which the cows tend to visit the AMS an average of 2.8 times a day. Previous research in this field showed milk yield typically increases by 1.5 to three kilograms. Milk increases that exceeded these values were due to improved management in other areas, such as nutritional changes or increased cow comfort.

The researchers visited retrofitted barns with an AMS installed, as well as barns built specifically for AMS. Anecdotal evidence shows barns built specifically for an AMS have an advantage over retrofitted barns, such as having a lower fetch rate. However, the sample size of retrofitted barns in this study was too small to make a meaningful comparison. Although barn designs and measurements were recorded, there were too many variations in the barn layouts to make a definite statistical conclusion.

The survey also included data from free cow traffic and directed cow traffic systems, with two barns containing both systems under one roof. Free traffic systems give cows access to all areas of the barn at all times. However, they tend to have reduced milking frequencies and a higher fetching rate when compared with directed traffic designs. Feed at the AMS and a desire to be milked are the only two reasons a cow will approach the robot. The study revealed these types of systems are the most common. In directed traffic systems, the cows must be milked before entering the next section of the barn. This is managed by placing a one-way gate near the robot.Dairy producers use two directed traffic systems: feed first and milk first.

Survey provides baseline findings

Of the participating AMS farms, 38 per cent had one robot, 47 per cent had two robots and 15 per cent had more than two robots. On average, each robot milked 48 cows. This is consistent with the recommended averages for both Lely and DeLaval systems, although the range was from a low of 31 cows per unit to a high of 66 cows per unit. Prior research has shown herds operating robots at a lower capacity per unit have more robot visits per cow per day. This means the robots are not functioning at optimal efficiency. As robots are still increasing in popularity, it is not surprising to observe more than 50 per cent of the farms surveyed had robots installed for less than 24 months.

Fetching rates are higher in the first few months after an AMS installation. A cow is considered to have been fetched when she will not go through the robot on her own or needs to be encouraged to do so. Software on an AMS will notify a producer if a cow needs to be fetched after the time interval between milkings has elapsed. Producers can set alarms based on their herd's needs.

The survey found a fetching rate of eight percent in herds where robots were installed for less than 24 months, and a fetching rate of six per cent in herds that had an AMS for more than 24 months. As well, 36 per cent of farms had fetching rates of less than five per cent on the visit day. All the herds with fetching rates greater than 10 per cent were relatively new to AMS, and all these were free-flow systems. Some cows have difficulty converting to robots, and will need to be fetched more often in the first few months after the AMS has been installed. Producers will usually see their fetching rate drop over time, from a few months to a year as they and the cows become more comfortable using the technology. Some producers may prefer to reduce their herd's fetching rate by culling cows that consistently need to be led to the robot.

The somatic cell count (SCC) varied widely between farms. The maximum SCC value surveyed was 477,000, and the minimum was 92,000. Based on the test closest to the visit date, the average SCC for the 33 farms was 240,000. Consent was obtained from the 26 producers using CanWest DHI to collect the test reports closest to the survey visit. The average SCC from those 26 herds at the time of the visit was 270,000. The provincial average for the three test months was 250,000.

Ten of the 33 farms visited had SCCs greater than 300,000, based on Dairy Farmers of Ontario bulk tank data, and 13 of the 26 herds using CanWest DHI had a linear score of 3.0 or higher for the report closest to the visit. A linear score of 3.0 or higher is usually associated with a herd issue, rather than just high SCCs from individual cows, which can skew a herd's SCC values. Ontario's SCCs are highest in summer compared with the rest of the year. All the visits occurred during late June, July and August.

Herds that use an AMS differ from conventional herds in several ways. Overall, the survey provided a good baseline of Ontario's current AMS status and use. OMAFRA and the University of Guelph are continuing to monitor changes in management and production to watch for trends.

This article was originally published in the August 2014 edition of the Milk Producer Magazine.

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