Automated System Puts Cows In Charge

The quietest dairy farm you’ve ever visited.

David Wiens has the kind of dairy farm where the cows practically run the place. Of course, computers help a lot, too.

David and his brother Charles own Skyline Dairy, one of the most cow-friendly milking operations you’ll see in Manitoba.

The cows decide when they want to be milked. They’ll go to the milking parlour and get it done without the help of human hands. They’ll also decide when it’s mealtime. Feed is dispensed automatically four times a day and the cows help themselves. If they feel like grooming, they’ll do that themselves, too.

It’s probably the quietest dairy farm you’ve ever visited. Not a single moo was heard from cows in a cavernous free-stall area during a recent tour of the operation by 35 industry representatives from Manitoba and four U. S. states. No tractors rumble up and down alleys removing manure. That’s done automatically, too.

As for human activity, there’s really very little. Skyline Dairy has only a fraction of the workforce a traditional dairy farm of a similar size would need.

Welcome to the world of robotic milking and precision automated feeding – a sign of the future for the dairy industry.

The Wiens brothers had their eyes on that future two years ago when they invested $2.8 million in expanding and converting a standard dairy farm into one with innovative technologies. The key: computerized automated systems.

Automated controls blend feed from four silos into precise TMR rations. Automated overhead belt feeders drop feed consisting of haylage and high-moisture grain into bunks. Automated voluntary robotic milking systems handle 250 cows up to three times a day each. Automated scrapers remove manure and transfer it to an outdoor slurry storage with a 250-day capacity.

It’s a huge labour saver. No wonder Skyline Dairy has only two full-time and two part-time employees, whereas a traditional dairy would need the daily equivalent of five people working a total of 30 hours a day just inside the barn.

There’s no herding cattle and no rounding them up to get milked. Cows act on their own instinct. Their daily routine consists of a slow, steady, counter-clockwise movement through every stage of the automated system.

As David Wiens explained to tour members, a cow decides from the pressure in her udder when she wants to be milked. She goes to an automated gate where a computer reads a transponder hanging around her neck. If it recognizes the cow, it’ll allow her in. But if the cow has been previously milked in less than six hours, the system will not admit her to the milking area. Instead, it’ll direct her back to the free stall.

Once through the gate, the cows wander toward four robotic milkers, each with a small bowl containing treats to keep them occupied. The milkers attach themselves

automatically and assess milk quality during the procedure. If there’s a problem with the milk (e. g., contamination or a high somatic cell count), it’s recorded and the milk diverted.

The cows leave the milking area the same way they came in, only on the other side. At a one-way exit gate, the system reads the transponder, recognizes the cow and releases her back into the free-stall area.

The system does double duty besides letting cows in and out of the milking parlour. If a cow needs to be bred, the system is programmed to know that and will release her, not into the main area, but into a breeding area off to the side. If a cow’s production is below normal or if she hasn’t shown up for milking within the last 12 hours, the system flags her and the producer checks for a possible problem.

Back in the free-stall area, the cows are free to eat again and to lie down on rubber mats inside stalls to rest and ruminate. If they want a bit of grooming, they rub up against a large, yellow rotating brush which activates when they touch it.

Wiens said it took awhile to get cows trained to the system when it opened in 2008. But a cow is a creature of habit and, once she learns the procedure, she follows it very well. Older cows can also mentor new animals introduced to the herd.

Because feeding is free choice and there’s “no surge to the feed bunk,” cows are under less stress, which translates into improved cow comfort, better udder health and general wellbeing, said Wiens.

None of this gives dairy farmers less to do. But it does give them more time for management, herd health and field work, especially during haying season.

It also gives Wiens more time for his duties as chairman of Dairy Farmers of Manitoba. [email protected]

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