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Automatic feeding systems deliver more feedings, less labor

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 31 October 2013

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Robots are milking cows, pushing up feed and scraping manure on dairies around the world. For several years, they have been feeding cows in Europe, and now three companies have plans to introduce similar, yet different, systems in North America.

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In general, these systems automatically load, mix and deliver fresh feed all day, every day around the farm. They are comprised of a kitchen where feed is automatically pulled from various bays or bins and mixed in the mixer, which then delivers it to the feedbunk.

“All the dairyman has to do is load the kitchen with fresh silage. The system takes care of the rest,” Alan Brandmeyer, Western U.S. and Western Canada regional sales manager for Trioliet, says.

The location of the kitchen can be adjusted based on the farm layout. It can be added on to a barn or located in a separate building. Its position would allow for bulk bins or upright silos to feed directly into it.

Forages from bags or bunker silos will need to be delivered and loaded in the kitchen throughout the week.

“On average, the kitchen should be loaded every two to three days in the summer and every five days in the winter, if the feed was put up well,” Dan Schreiner, Lely North America Farm Management Support (FMS) adviser, says.

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“The biggest objective is to maintain feed freshness in the kitchen,” he continues. “How well the feed is packed and preserved plays a big role in that.”

By not having to deliver feed daily, the kitchen can be loaded the day before a social event, a pending snowstorm or making hay. “That flexibility for the farmer is great,” Schreiner says.

Plus, filling the kitchen takes less time and doesn’t demand such high skills as mixing a ration. Any good tractor driver can do it.

The cows benefit too, given they will receive multiple, smaller feedings per day. It keeps the feed fresher and pushed up. Therefore, it is less likely for sorting to occur and it encourages greater dry matter intake.

“The cow itself is a grazing animal and prefers to eat four to six times a day,” Brandmeyer says. By delivering fresh feed throughout the day, cows will eat more and perform better. Plus, there won’t be as much old feed left to clean up from the bunk.

The software and precision offered with the robot can help farms track feed inventories.

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It also provides the flexibility to offer more rations to smaller pen sizes. A producer can now feed a different ration to milking cows, dry cows, close-up cows, heifers and sick cows without taking extra time from their day.

The feed delivery units are quiet, compared to a diesel tractor and mixer wagon. In addition, electrical costs for the system are comparable to only a gallon of fuel.

Similar to other robotic technology, it is programmed to call the farmer when something goes wrong. Plus, there are built-in safety systems to stop the unit if needed.

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Trioliet Triomatic
Available for several years in Europe, Trioliet plans to have 60 Triomatic feeding systems in place worldwide by the end of 2013.

The first North American installation is under way in Illinois with plans to be up and running this fall.

The 110-cubic-foot mixer has knives capable of cutting, grinding and mixing. “It’s not just for delivery,” Brandmeyer says.

Traveling by overhead rail, one robot can feed 40 to 700 cows. The rail can be installed outside with a roof overtop for travel to other buildings. It can also go up and down hills up to a 14 percent slope with the addition of a second drive.

Using a lift system, the mixer is capable of hoisting itself up and over gates. Some farms will use it for bedding freestalls with mixer-friendly ingredients like sawdust and chopped straw.

A feed pusher attachment can be installed to push up feed as it travels. There is also a carousel option that will direct the robot down different tracks.

It mixes and delivers a certain amount of feed at certain times of the day based on the program set up by the farm. “It does what it is told to do,” Brandmeyer says.

The company offers four different options for its automatic feeding system:

T10 – This is the robot only with no kitchen. It is fed by upright silos and bulk bins.

T20 – The robot is used with another stationary mixer where feed is manually loaded. This is for farmers that want to dispense a single basic ration and potentially add various components per feed group to the robotic feeder.

T30 – This uses the kitchen with chain-driven, live-bottom bunkers. Feed from bales, baleage, bags or bunkers are loaded into these units and automatically pulled in the desired portion to the mixer.

T40 – In this kitchen, the bunkers are replaced with feed floors for storing blocks of silage that are cut from outdoor bunker silos. Because the blocks stay tightly packed, the feed stays fresher longer.

“We have a solution for every farmer,” Stefan Schulte says.

As a specialist for automatic feeding for Trioliet, Schulte has been involved with every European system installed from the very first on a 250-cow farm in the Netherlands in 2006 to the largest on a 550-cow farm in Denmark.

Over time, the software used in the system has evolved to continue to meet the needs of dairy producers.

Unlimited feed types can be entered into the system’s software program, and it can make very small batches of feed with accuracy. “The only limit we have is 24 hours in a day,” he says.

The software also has the ability to communicate with the farm’s milking system software and will automatically update the number of cows in the milking pen and dry cow pen when a cow’s status is changed.

The feeding program can be accessed via a computer, smartphone or tablet. Producers can change the number of cows, alter the ration and check to see the system’s performance anywhere they have access to the Internet.

It also logs a report for every load of feed it makes. “I can look back five years and know what was fed at a specific day and time,” he adds.

Schulte says his customers are achieving more milk with fewer concentrates in the ration. They are seeing feed efficiencies of 1.7 pounds of milk for every pound of dry matter, whereas nearby dairies average 1.3 for feed efficiency.

Dairies are also reporting an increase in fat and protein content in milk, he says. A 250-cow farm he has worked with has a 3.7 percent protein and 4.6 percent fat record. That is in comparison to average herds with 3.4 percent protein and 4.2 percent fat.

The same farm is also saving money in energy and labor costs. Schulte says labor expenses are down 80 percent and energy costs are approximately 75 percent less than when the farm used a tractor and mixer.

Brandmeyer says the rail system makes it adaptable to many situations. It can be installed in existing facilities, and a perfectly smooth concrete surface isn’t necessary.

It is powered by a power rail that travels alongside the main rail. At any point the robot has full power, which won’t compromise its mixing abilities.

The system does require three-phase electricity, which is common on farms that implement other forms of robotic technology, such as automatic milking systems.

The cost varies from $100,000 to $400,000, depending on the number of feedstuffs and size of the farm.

Go to www.trioliet.com or contact your local dealer for more information.

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Lely Vector
Lely showcased its Vector at World Dairy Expo, Oct. 1-5, in Madison, Wisconsin. It was first released in Canada last year and is now on three farms there.

This particular mixer moves along the ground. It has the same base as Lely’s feed-pushing unit, with a TMR mixer on top.

It will constantly drive through the building pushing up feed. Along the way, it uses a laser to measure the height of the feed in the bunk.

It makes a note of the pen that needs more feed and will mix up that ration the next time it is in the kitchen.

When it leaves the kitchen, it continues on the same route – pushing and measuring – but this time it will stop to dispense the feed when it reaches the pen in need.

The robot will automatically adjust for increased or decreased intakes because its settings are based on how much to dispense at a time and how low the bunk should get before a new batch is delivered.

It can feed up to 14 different pens or rations. The machine runs around the clock and “has quite a bit of capacity,” Schreiner says.

A single robot can service a 300-cow dairy. If it only has to make a short trip with an inside feed alley, it could support more animals, he estimates.

The robot can travel between buildings. It can travel up to a 5 percent slope and plow its own snow, but some farms will build a breezeway to keep ice from being a problem.

When the robot enters the kitchen, it pulls into a docking station that charges the battery. Here, the mixer runs off the main power source. If two robots are in use, a second charging station is installed. This is where a robot would park and wait if the one in the kitchen is occupied.

The kitchen uses silage blocks cut from the bunker. A feed grabber pulls off what it needs and weighs out the amount into the robot. In time, it learns how much each feedstuff weighs and only pulls that amount.

The cost varies based on the design for each farm, but it averages $189,000, which includes the robot and elements in the kitchen.

Nicolaas Zeldenrijk from Mt. Elgin, Ontario, was one of the first producers in Canada to install this system. He learned about it while planning a new robotic milking facility for his 150-cow herd. At the same time, he was considering replacement of his 12-year-old TMR mixer.

The feeding system was installed on the back of his existing freestall barn and started operating in March. Two months later, he moved his milking herd to the new milking facility, and dry cows and heifers now occupy the old freestalls. A path was built between the two barns for the robot feeder.

With the robot in mind, he was able to put a smaller feed alley in the new barn. It is still big enough for a tractor and mixer, but it’s tight. By removing 4 feet from the length of the building, which includes underground manure storage, he saved $50,000.

After considering all available feeding systems, Zeldenrijk chose this one because of its ability to push up feed and measure the remaining feed in the bunk.

He can now feed seven different mixes in the dry cow and heifer barn. The milking herd receives a single ration, with individualized amounts of energy pellets fed in the robotic milking unit.

Zeldenrijk says he likes it because of the freedom. “I can do it any time I want. It doesn’t have to be morning and night,” he says.

He used to feed the milk cows twice a day and the other groups once a day. He figures on average he would spend 12 hours a week feeding cows, and now his time is needed for just four hours a week.

In the summer, he fills the kitchen every other day. He hasn’t experienced a winter yet, but his goal is to go every seven days if the blocks are big enough.

The blocks put a nicer face on his bunker, and with the kitchen under roof, he doesn’t have to worry about a moisture difference in the ration on snowy and rainy days.

The system also allows him to feed younger heifers a more precise ration. One of Zeldenrijk’s goals is to cut his number of replacement heifers in half, down to 75. This system helps him feed to what he needs so he can start breeding them earlier – at 13 months.

He has expressed to Lely that he would like to add his youngest weaned calves to the route. He also wants to be able to utilize two types of corn silage – low-quality blocks for heifers and high-quality blocks for cows.

For more information on this feed system, go to their website or contact a Lely dealer.

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DeLaval Optifeeding system
DeLaval introduced its Optifeeding system for the first time in North America at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show, Sept. 10-12, in Woodstock, Ontario.

According to Rick Robbins, marketing manager of feeding systems, “DeLaval recognizes the growing demand for automated feeding solutions at dairies all over the world, especially Europe, and believes this trend will expand to other markets over the next several years.

This will most likely include the U.S., but the company has not identified specific timing for introducing DeLaval Optimat in the U.S.” PD

PHOTOS
The Trioliet Triomatic, top, Lely Vector, middle, and DeLaval Optifeeding, bottom, are three examples of automatic feeding systems that can deliver multiple, precise rations around the clock. Photos courtesy of Trioliet, Lely North America and DeLaval.

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Karen Lee
Editor
Progressive Dairyman

The following checklist can be used to determine if this new technology might be a fit for your operation.

1. Do you want to save time feeding cows?

2. Would you like to add flexibility to your feeding schedule?

3. Are you interested in feeding four to six times a day?

4. Would you want to deliver more types of rations?

5. Do you put up feed well?

6. Do you have room to add or expand a feed building?

7. Are your buildings in close proximity to one another?

8. Do you have three-phase power?

If you answered yes to six or more of these questions, this technology may be one for you to consider.

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