Cows that are milked by robotic systems are much calmer than those milked in conventional milking-parlor setups. By: Chris McCullough
That’s according to results from a new study by the University of Sydney Dairy Research Foundation found that cows preferred to be milked by robotics and stayed much calmer during the process.
The work was carried out by PhD student Ashleigh Wildridge who in 2015 began testing anecdotal evidence that automatic milking machines kept cows quieter during milking. As part of her study Wildridge visited five dairy farms in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania that were installing robotic milking systems.
One of the more noticeable visuals she encountered was that cows milked by robots appeared to be less fearful of humans compared to when they were milked conventionally.
Wildridge said, “What was particularly interesting was that because the cows were quieter the farmers had to utilize a bit more effort in order to get the cows to move in a desired way, because the cows were that much more relaxed around the humans which was really good to see.”
Three days were spent on each farm watching the farmers and recording their daily routines, but at the same time keeping a distance from the cows.
“After that I performed a ‘flight-distance’ test with a specific selection of about 70 cows where I would just approach the cows in the paddock. Or I had one indoor system in a barn, and recorded the distance (at) which the cows started to move away from me,” she said. “Then I also performed a handling test where the same selection of cows were drafted after milking. I got the farm manager to quietly ask the cows to move through the gate one at a time so I could assess how the cows responded to close human contact in what might be a potentially stressful situation for them.
“The flight distance of the cows was significantly reduced when they were in the automatic milking systems, and the same with the handling test; the cows were much less likely to run past the farmer when they asked them to move.”
A number of factors could have contributed to the fact cows were calmer in the robotic system, she said.
“But what I saw was that the farmers spent significantly less time interacting with the cows each day particularly around milk harvesting,” she said. “Cows might not particularly enjoy being milked. So with farmers removed from that situation, farmers are generally now only associated with mainly positive things – particularly being with feed – so when the cows are given a fresh break of pasture or access to the feed pad, that’s all associated with the farmers. So that’s a lot more positive for the cows.”
Using the automated robotic milking systems meant the farmer was able to spend less time with the cows when they were being milked and had more time to spend on other farm jobs.
Although the use of robotic milking systems is spreading fast across Europe, there are only 40 farms using the automation in Australia, where the take up has been slow.
The goal for Wildridge is that her research can help those dairy farmers who are considering installing a robotic milking system by highlighting some of the potential benefits.
She said, “It might just help give them a bit of extra information or even more peace of mind that it seems to be either benefiting, or no worse off, in these systems than existing conventional systems.”
But there was no correlation in Wildridge’s research as to whether the calmness observed in the cows resulted in any extra milk yield, although previous research suggested that it might.
She said, “Research over many years has shown that cows that are more stressed are likely to produce less milk. I can’t say it will have an effect on milk yield, but over a longer time study it would be definitely something to look in to.”
Chris McCullough, brought up on a dairy and beef farm in the heart of Northern Ireland, is a journalist who specialises in the international world of agriculture.