Automatic milking systems: factors affecting health, productivity and welfare

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The adoption of automatic milking systems (AMS) is increasing year after year across Canada. According to Dr. Ed Pajor, Anderson-Chisholm Chair in Animal Care and Welfare in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine of the University of Calgary, “Canadian dairy producers want to know in advance what to expect if they make the transition to AMS.”

Dr. Pajor and his graduate student, Ms. Christine Tse, conducted a study funded under the Dairy Research Cluster program with producers who had already transitioned to this new system. They surveyed 200 Canadian dairy producers to document their perceptions of the effect of transitioning to AMS on their farm.

The average farm participating in this study had 51 lactating cows per milking robot and two AMS units per dairy farm. Almost all producers surveyed (81%) reported increased milk yield with little change in milk quality after transitioning to AMS. More than half (55%) of producers built a new barn and 47% said they changed housing systems.

For the majority of producers, their cleaning and feeding practices remained unchanged. Most producers perceived that all the information provided by the robots about each animal made it easier to detect lameness or illness in their cows.

Most producers noted lameness either decreased or stayed the same after introducing AMS, and detecting lame cows was facilitated by the automatic detection in AMS. They also noted having AMS allowed more time to observe cows, thus enhancing lameness detection. One potential note of caution is changing the housing system at the same time as transitioning to AMS seemed to lead to more reports of increased lameness. This suggests the change in cow locomotion after switching from tiestall to freestall in tandem with the installation of an AMS has a greater impact on lameness than simply introducing a new milking system.

The vast majority (87%) of producers reported either a decrease or no change in the rate of clinical mastitis, and about two-thirds of producers reported that the conception rate increased with AMS.

Almost all producers agreed that AMS improved their quality of life in terms of more flexibility, less physically-demanding work, and easier employee management.

“Overall, producers reported to us that the transition to AMS met their expectations and increased the profitability of their operation. In addition, they would recommend AMS to other producers,” affirmed Dr. Pajor.

Author:  Shannon L. Tracey, Ph.D., Cross the “T” Consulting

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