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FFA research project affirms family’s automatic milking decision

Shawna Weller Published on 31 October 2013

People make choices every day, and sometimes you just have to hope you make the right decision. For my family farm, Weller’s Dairy, we definitely made the right choice. We have a small, family-owned and operated dairy farm.

It has continued to get harder and harder to find a good hired hand or just someone in general willing to come help milk cattle. My grandparents are not getting any younger and are no longer able to help out as much as they used to.

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Thus came the realization that our family was going to have to make a choice. The two options were to install an automatic milking system or sell our dairy cattle.

We did not make this decision for over a year because we wanted to make sure we would be making the right choice. In the end, we decided to install the automatic milking system.

The installation of the automatic milking system was a success, but only after a lot of hard work and long hours. In order to install the automatic milking system on our farm, we had to renovate our current barn and add an addition on to the end.

This, of course, was decided after numerous sketches and plans of just how we could get this automatic milker into our farm.

We ended up having to remove all of the stanchions, tear out the end wall, add an addition, and add freestalls, the automatic milker area and office, as well as have the barn set up to accommodate all of the cattle, have a feeding area, have water-access areas and of course to have a special needs and commitment pen that also went along with the automatic milker.

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Overall, a lot of changes had to be made to accommodate the automatic milker. However, the automatic milker seemed to be working wonderfully, and my family was pleased and felt we had made the right decision.

I, however, wanted to know more than just the fact that it was working; I wanted to know if it was worth all of the changes and the amount of money we spent to install the automatic milking system.

So I set out to discover whether installing the automatic milker increased the cattle’s milk production and whether or not it was cost-efficient.

The research I did when trying to find whether the automatic milker increased milk production while still being cost-efficient became my science fair research project.

To start, I gathered data on our total herd milk production, as well as individual cattle milk production data, from our past Dairy Herd Improvement Association (DHIA) records and the current system that our Lely automatic milker uses, called Time for Cows (also known as T4C).

I then did a statistical test on my data, called a T-test, and came to find out that for my individual cow data, meaning from one month of one year compared to the same month of the following year, the numbers supported my hypothesis, which was that the automatic milker would increase milk production.

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Now to even understand all of this, I had to look to my probability and statistics teacher for help.

He explained to me that if I got a P-value, also known as probability value, of more than 0.1, then my data would have no statistical significance, meaning there was not a significant change in milk production between the stanchion barn milking and the automatic milking styles.

Well as it turns out, my P-value for the individual cow data was 0.038. This is definitely below the 0.1 reject value, so therefore, the cattle’s individual milk production did indeed increase with the automatic milker.

As for the herd-average milk production between the two years, my P-value was less than 0.0001. Again, the data supported my hypothesis that the automatic milker did increase milk production.

I also performed another test, and this one was to see how much of a difference in milk production there was between the two styles of milking. I came up with an average of 5 pounds difference. This means that, on average, each individual cow started producing 5 more pounds of milk.

Keep in mind, however, that when I was gathering this data from our automatic milker, it had only been installed and running for six months – and in the herd, there were cattle who were 7 years old and had known five lactations in the old stanchion barn – yet the majority of them still increased in milk production when at their age, they should normally start to drop.

So yes, for our small family dairy farm, the data results showed that the automatic milker increased milk production.

However, there was one thing that I did find quite interesting when working on this project. When I had been using the DHIA and T4C records, there are graphs showing each cow’s lactation. In the DHIA records, I noticed that the majority of the cattle had a bell curve for their lactation.

What I mean by this is that in the beginning of their lactation, the milk production was down but gradually increased and then decreased again as they were getting further along in their pregnancy and were being dried off.

This was not the case when I looked at the T4C records, though. I started to see the bell curve at first in the sense that the amount of milk produced started off lower and then started to gain – and then that is where the similarities between the records ended.

The cattle were hitting a certain point and then staying there instead of decreasing like we normally would have seen. Therefore, with the automatic milker, the cattle’s milk production started off lower, then went up and stayed that way for a lot longer compared to the traditional style of milking.

The only downside to this is the potential to have a harder time getting the cattle to slow down in milk production in order to dry them off.

However, we have not had too many problems with this. The overall cattle health seems to have improved, and they are doing so much better than we had ever expected.

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Of course, this came to us at a cost, and that cost was due to the renovations needed to the barn and also for the purchasing of the automatic milking system.

In brief, I looked at a lot of different factors that affected cost-efficiency. Table 1 shows these factors and what my results were.

When all of the factors in Table 1 were taken into consideration, I was able to conclude that the automatic milking system was indeed cost-efficient.

I came to this conclusion by seeing the decrease in the cost of feed, vet bills and labor expenses while also looking at the increase in milk production that leads to more income.

Overall, my science fair research project led me to conclude that installing the automatic milker was indeed the best choice we could have made. The automatic milker increased the cattle’s milk production while still being cost-efficient.

Due to my project, I was able to also discover that the cattle’s lactation was increasing and more stable for longer compared to what we had previously seen with the traditional style of milking.

In the end, my family and I were able to use the results from my research project to support our original thoughts about the automatic milking system, which was that we made the right decision. PD

Shawna Weller is a recent graduate of West Perry High School and West Perry FFA in Pennsylvania. Her research, as summarized here, was chosen as one of the top 15 animal science FFA research projects in the country. She competed for top honors at FFA’s national convention Oct. 29 – Nov. 2.

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