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Comfort with robots: Why stall surface is important

Paul Berdell Published on 31 March 2015

cows resting

From conventional to robotic milking, we see really no significant differences in the freestall dimensions recommended for comfortable dairy cows. Over the past years, there have been changes in recommended stall length and width.

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Neck rail heights, brisket rail use and other stall options have also been discussed at length. Using existing research, recommendations and experience, we see generally the same freestall dimensions in robotic and conventional herds.

Rather than going over the many published articles that discuss these stall dimensions and recommendations, I think it is instead important to focus specifically on stall surface in a robotic milking facility.

The unique consideration of cow behavior in a robotic herd

In a robotic herd, the general cow dynamic is different than in a conventional herd. There is one unique behavioral difference between robotic and conventional herds that creates special considerations when choosing a freestall base: behavior consistency.

In a conventional herd, the herd itself is consistent. Cows exit the milking parlor, generally will drink water, eat at the feedbunk and then lay down. The pattern is roughly consistent inside the entire herd as they do these behaviors in a consistent sequence each day.

While the herd is being milked, the crew is cleaning the barn, cleaning the bedding surface, topping up the bedding, raking and feeding. This means that the maintenance schedule inside of the conventional system ensures this behaviorally consistent herd finds consistently comfortable stalls after milking.

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In a robotic herd, the cow is individually consistent. A particular cow follows her own consistent behavior routine, but that routine is vastly different than the behavioral routine of the next cow, and the next, and the next, and so forth. This results in a mass of individuals choosing to eat, milk, drink and lay down at all different intervals. This means the maintenance schedule might not be a schedule at all.

Scheduling stall surface maintenance with robots

Because of the lack of consistency between all of these individual cows on their individual schedules, the ability for a cow to find a clean, dry stall every time she lays down can diminish in a robotic system. It is the producer’s job to help the cow find consistently comfortable stalls, even with an inconsistent herd schedule.

As owners, we cannot stand in the barn all day long with a rake or hand scraper cleaning every spot, so it is important to ensure the freestall features, the bedding surface and maintenance needs are taken into consideration when choosing a freestall base for a robotic herd.

Freestall features

Cows need to lie in stalls correctly to keep the back of the stall surface as clean and dry as possible; this is true for conventional and robotic herds. Having proper-sized stalls, properly placed neck rails and a brisket rail are all very important to ensure proper cow positioning.

Proper cow positioning means the waste goes mostly into the alley, resulting in an overall drier stall surface over time, so if one cow is attempting to lay down when the barn is at its messiest, she will still have an opportunity to find a reasonably clean stall.

Stall surface considerations

For those building new barns or remodeling stalls, the stall surface might be one of the biggest topics of discussion.

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I have seen successful robotic operations with sand, waterbeds, mattresses with light bedding and other deep-bedded products such as straw, sawdust or manure solids. The point is this: All of these surfaces can work in a robotic barn if managed properly.

Cow comfort is still number one

Everyone seems to agree that cow comfort goes at the top of the priority list. As stated previously, I have seen successful robotic operations with many stall surfaces. Ensuring comfort is still number one on the list.

The cost of the stall surface should be the last thing on your mind. If you are willing to make a large investment in the milking system installing robots, then do not skimp on cow comfort. The comfort of the cows lying in the stalls will ultimately bring you more production, herd health potential and long-term benefit than the robot ever will.

Making the stall surface choice

Just like in any barn, choosing the right stall surface in a robot barn is all about carefully balancing the trade-offs between cow comfort, labor and maintenance, flexibility, durability, cow flow, operating costs and manure management.

The most successful robotic herds I have worked with don’t skimp on cow comfort, and the most common, comfortable bedding surfaces in the barns are as follows:

  • Sand
  • Waterbeds, bare or topped with light bedding
  • Foam, crumb rubber or gel mattresses topped with light bedding
  • Other deep bedding materials

Again, all of these choices can provide excellent cow comfort. Choosing which is right for you is about looking at your goals.

Aligning your milking system goals with your back barn goals

You’ve put in robots for a reason. Are you looking to reduce labor? Reduce overall operating costs? Increase milk output? Manage manure differently?

By deciding why you’re putting in robots, you might find that choosing a bedding surface becomes easier, as different bedding choices have different strengths and challenges. Again, all of these options can provide excellent comfort with proper management. It is up to you to decide how to manage the robot facility based on your barn management goals.

Look briefly at the list below of considerations on how stall surface affects your robotic system, and then rank your priorities to help you further narrow your options.

  • Labor and maintenance. Why are you installing robots? Many producers are putting in robots partly to reduce labor. If your top management goal is to reduce labor, don’t add more labor in the back barn and end up not meeting your desired outcome for your operation.

However, no matter what you choose in the robot barn, all stall surfaces need to be cleaned properly at least twice a day. The labor consideration comes in realizing what proper cleaning entails?

  • Flexibility. Twice-per-day cleaning or more should ideally take place around the same time each day. Sound familiar? You may be asking yourself, “Why did I get robots if I still have to be in the barn cleaning every day at the same time?” Well, at least you don’t have to do it at 3 a.m.

If your top management priority is having flexibility, then choosing a surface that will be comfortable for longer periods might be a good choice.

Mattresses and waterbeds provide more flexibility, even as the top bedding is reduced, as they are different surfaces and the cows cannot dig holes in them like they can in deep bedding. If you really do not want to be tied down to a schedule, then a concrete platform-based surface is the most flexible.

With deep bedding you will maximize comfort but will notice a large variance in cow activity if the time between adding bedding products goes out too far. You may notice that cows will bed down and stay for longer periods in the time right after adding fresh bedding, and they will stand around longer if the barn has no good, clean stall options for them to lay down.

Bedding more frequently, and more consistently, will help remedy both problems. Deep bedding might provide more comfort, but if your top management priority is flexibility, then deep bedding may require a bit more commitment than you want.

  • Cow flow. Current robot users often try and clean around cows that are lying down to ensure cows are not being disturbed while they are lying. However, if the stall is dirty, then it needs to be cleaned so the next cow doesn’t have only a dirty stall.

In this situation, people often argue that never disrupting the cows is better for the cows’ natural flow. However, in my experience it is more important that stall hygiene is improved with a regular cleaning, and getting cows up will motivate movement in the robot barn flow.

As long as you are cleaning the stalls twice a day or more, and the cows come to expect it at a fairly regular interval, getting them up and moving isn’t a bad thing. Sand, deep bedding, waterbeds or mattresses all need cleaning, so some cow disruptions will take place.

  • Operating costs. Robots are a significant investment. There are many different factors to look at when doing the budget for a robotic farm that will change or be different than a conventional herd – from robot nutrition to new technologies to different labor and skill-level needs.

If your top management priority after installing robots is to create the most cost-efficient robotic system, then look carefully at all of the different factors that go into the stall surface choice. Sand may be the most comfortable – but what is the cost of the sand, equipment repair, fuel and labor?

How does that compare to the results of a similar farm with mattresses or straw or waterbeds? If you are thinking about mattresses or waterbeds, what is the amount and cost of the top bedding you will use? How does it compare to sand or deep-bedded straw? I have seen successful herds on all of these bedding types, and each of them has a different price to pay.

  • Your own experiences and gut feelings. Just because you are installing robots doesn’t mean you automatically have to make a change in the back barn. I have seen existing herds with sand, waterbeds, mattresses and deep bedding all stay with what they have good experiences with. I have also seen dramatic change – from sand to waterbeds, from mattresses to open pack barns and many other switches.

Quick review

  • Look at your priorities. Ask yourself what are the most important things to you as you change to robotic milking. This is your farm and your choice – no one can or should make it for you.
  • Do your research to identify your questions and concerns. I believe the four choices I’ve listed here all have the potential to be very comfortable for cows. Comparing them with your priorities will help you develop specific questions and concerns.
  • Visit other producers to see first-hand how the system might work for you. Once you have your questions and concerns, don’t be nervous about asking around. Maybe you are looking to make a dramatic change, and it’s becoming intimidating with all of the other changes going on.

    Trust that people are out there and willing to share their experiences. Nothing beats seeing something first-hand. Ask your dealer to take you on a tour. Go to the farm shows and ask for names and addresses.

  • Commit to proper maintenance to achieve highest levels of clean, dry, comfortable stalls. No matter what you choose, you must commit to proper maintenance that is appropriate for the individual system.
  • Don’t be afraid to make another change if your first choice isn’t working over time. You may have decided, and installed, and begun operations. Things change. Everyone is wrong sometimes. Don’t be afraid to re-assess the bedding situation if you find your first choice is no longer meeting your new or shifting management priorities. PD

Paul Berdell is a consultant helping dairy producers transition to robotic milking and has more than a decade of experience with robots. His company, Robotic Milking Integration Solutions, works alongside dairy producers around the world. Berdell can be reached by email.

PHOTO
Cows lying properly in stalls will see alignment with the alley so the majority of manure and liquid will not contaminate the freestalls. Brisket rails, proper stall length and proper neck rail positioning all help to ensure alignment. Photo courtesy of Holly Harper.

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