March 29, 2014      

A European project to test the economic viability of integrated cow grazing and robotic milking systems has begun trials in County Cork, Ireland.

Automatic milking (AM) systems are growing in popularity on European dairy farms, with 20 percent of cows expected to be milked by robots by 2020. This trend, however, has produced an unintended consequence — a decrease in cow grazing across Europe.

As part of the $4.25 million, EU-funded AUTOGRASSMILK project, researchers are testing a system that consists of a Merlin 225 AM unit (provided by Fullwood) and a herd of 70 cows to see whether grazing and robotic milking can be integrated in a cost-effective way.

As part of the trial, cows are lured into the robotic milking unit when the amount of grass in the paddock decreases. The cows know that there is a fresh paddock to go into, but to get there, they have to pass through the robotic milking unit, at which point they can be milked.

The system effectively guides cows to come to a milking stall on a voluntarily basis, up to three times per day.

With conventional milking systems, the dairy farmer has to be present. If the new system is successful, however, it opens up the possibility of allowing one farmer to milk two or more herds simultaneously. One conventional herd could be milked in person and the others via robot.

“It’s a neat way of enabling a farmer to expand his herd, even if he does not have land area within walking distance of the cow,” Bernadette O’Brien, project lead and senior research officer at Teagasc’s Animal and Grassland Research and Innovation Centre, told Robotics Business Review.

High costs, lower-quality milk remain challenges

The system is very suitable for herds of approximately 70 to 75 cows, but may not be quite as suitable for very large herds of 500-plus cows, such as those found in New Zealand.

“Farmers there [in New Zealand] are very happy with rotaries,” explained O’Brien. “One would need too many individual AM units in 1 yard for that large number of cows.”

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The current cost of the system being tested is approximately $137,000 for the milking unit and $96,500 for the yard layout. The high capital costs of such systems remains a challenge, acknowledged O’Brien.

“This is expensive … but the anticipation is that the technology may get cheaper as time goes on and also that the cost of labor will be reduced,” O’Brien said. “The decrease in labor cost will depend on the cost of labor in a particular country.”

Less grazing also means lower-quality milk, an increased environmental footprint and a decrease in animal welfare standards, said O’Brien.

Labor savings of robotic milking systems?

If successful, the integration of robotic milking and cow grazing certainly has its benefits, including reduced labor input — giving farmers more time to focus on management. Other benefits include the ability to expand the size of a herd across geographically distant sites and increased cow performance data that can later be used as a management tool.

“It is difficult to [be definitive] about the labor savings, as different studies at different times have shown different results due to the variation in the operators labor management and also the difference in facilities on different farms,” O’Brien said.

One controlled Swedish study showed that with herds of 55 cows, two hours per day can be saved in an AM system when compared to a conventional milking system. This amounts to about two minutes per cow per day saved thanks to robotic milking.

“However, the other point about AM is that as well as reducing the total labor required in a day, it removes time bound labor — that is, having to be present at milking at morning and evening,” explained O’Brien.

“We aim to determine answers to the relevant questions and provide information so that farmers can made an informed decision as to whether the robot would suit them or not,” he said.

The AUTOGRASSMILK research project is funded by the EU FP7 and runs until 2015. More information on the project is available in the “Automatic Milking Systems” article (p. 20) in the spring 2014 issue of Teagasc’s research and innovation magazine (download PDF).