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Is automated, centralized feeding the best way to dairy?

Jennifer Janak Published on 06 November 2014

centralized feeder

Idaho is the country’s fourth-largest dairy state, where the average herd is 620 cows. Exploring further into the state, you’ll find that Cassia County, located in the Magic Valley, is home to nearly 54,000 milking cows.

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It’s then no question as to why producers there are showing interest in automated, centralized feeding systems to reduce feed loss and improve efficiency on the farm.

A private tour
Pulling up next to the intimidatingly large feed center at Oak Valley Dairy, in Burley, Idaho, dust billows behind feed trucks as they haul rations to the respective pens. Something, or rather someone, is missing. There are no employees batching the ration.

Instead, motors roar and whistles blow as feed ingredients are being loaded onto a conveyor belt, eventually making their way to two stationary mixers inside an enclosed building.

The dairy, located on the outskirts of Burley, Idaho, feeds 12,000 cows and heifers using the newly implemented feeding technology.

“We were really cutting our teeth with this project and trying it all out,” says Alan Floyd, president of Precision Feeding Systems.

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It was the second automated, centralized feeding system the company had constructed as of last January. To date, they have four other dairies implementing similar technologies.

Behind the brains of the operation
Inside the “cockpit” of this great contraption are Floyd and the herd manager, Alberto Miramontest. This small office, located above the conveyor belt, is where all operations begin. A large window looks out below so rations can be monitored as they are batched one after another.

They are eager to demonstrate how feed can be correctly measured and mixed into a near-perfect ration, all with the click of a button on the keyboard of the computer system.

Miramontest guides Alan through programming a ration into the computer for the system to batch. A digital map of the facility and trucks appear, and the system accurately begins mixing a ration for a heifer pen.

“Once the rations are programmed into the main computer system, I am able to monitor and change them from my personal devices,” says Miramontest.

“The feeding system basically clones the EZ Feed program,” adds Floyd. “The nutritionist can program the ration into his or her phone and have it sent directly to the computer.”

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Oak Valley Dairy wanted to install an automated, centralized feeding center to better improve efficiency on the farm. They were ready to focus more on the cows and worry less about employee management.

The herd manager is now one of the few personnel on the farm that is highly trained to work with the newly implemented program. Because of this, the dairy has improved time management to deliver feed to the cows.

Previously, the dairy used three tractors to mix feed and deliver nearly 60 loads of feed a day; now, the dairy is operating with two trucks and one loader and has increased to 75 loads of feed each day. The system can deliver those essential nutrients, from mixing to unloading at the bunk, in less than 15 minutes.

“Automated, centralized feeding systems make feeding on a dairy the most efficient it can be,” says Dave McComb, dealer sales manager at Laird Manufacturing.

It is, however, important to note that the system can only be as efficient as the person behind the scenes running the operation, which for Oak Valley Dairy seems to be working in their favor.

Miramontest wanted to decrease feed shrink. These types of feeding systems have been known to reduce shrink up to 11 percent. They are currently operating at 3 percent shrink, a value he is very pleased with.

“Our goal was to keep the feed away from open air and to reduce feed loss,” he says. “We wanted to eliminate premixes and have the ability to feed on demand.”

There are some that believe this type of batching and feeding system costs more than what it’s worth.

Dr. Alan Vaage, a ruminant nutritionist with Jaylor, argues that it depends on how one defines “efficiency” that really determines how cost-effective the system is on the dairy.

“In short, automated feeding systems don’t make dairies the most efficient they can be,” he says. “Labor-efficient, yes. Economically efficient – that has yet to be seen.”

There are many factors that can determine economic efficiency, each varying based on the location of the dairy – the current economy, nearest utility company and fuel and energy costs, etc., says McComb. It is not going to be the perfect solution for every dairyman.

It’s a project that one has to build big and finance with an expected life span, including costs for depreciation and maintenance, creating huge economic overhead right from the start.

Alberto Miramontest

Floyd believes the perks of this type of technology is that while the cost to implement may be jaw-dropping, it can be accustomed to fit any dairy’s needs.

European dairies and beef feedlots in the U.S. have utilized this type of feeding system for many years, making it only an up-and-coming technology within the U.S. dairy industry, though a difficult one. On average, a beef animal will eat about half of what a dairy cow does, and its diet consists of predominantly grain.

Formulating a specific diet for dairy breeds can be tricky and detrimental to the health of the animal if done incorrectly. Forages are of the most concern, as they must be of a certain quality and cut to be fed to a dairy animal regardless of the technology used to make the completed ration.

Likewise, there is a make-or-break point for scale of the operation. Ideally, dairies consisting of 5,000 cows or larger will be more likely to see a payback from the automated, centralized system.

A hiccup in the process
The heifer ration has been completed, and it is time to make the next batch for a dry cow pen. A computer glitch stalls the conveyor belt, halting the batching process. Miramontest works vigorously to correct the error and is able to do so within minutes.

Ironically, Vaage is not surprised this happened.

He compares the system to robotic milking. A dairy needs to have the technical support available so things can be fixed immediately as to not slow down the cows’ routine.

“Everything works perfectly when it’s first up and running, but these systems stop working almost immediately after they start,” he says. “When you’re late on one group, it has a ripple effect. The most important thing, on any livestock farm, is to deliver the feed consistently in the amounts and quality that the animals need.”

That may be the case; it may not be.

Oak Valley Dairy claims to have seen an improvement in herd health, as well as production. But perhaps that could also be attributed to better cow management from the employees; the definite cause is uncertain.

“Overall, everything works well. The cut for our heifer rations are precise,” says Miramontest. “It’s a beautiful site to see all their mouths full of feed.”

Unique to each dairy
Oak Valley Dairy has just completed the last batch of morning feed as Floyd decides to guide the private tour to another construction site just miles down the road.

Cement mixers, tractors and various other equipment were busy building another automated, centralized feeding system for a dairy planning to relocate and expand. This design resembled the facility at Oak Valley Dairy very little, a reminder that it really can be fitted to any dairyman’s specific requests.

This facility will include all the feedstuffs under one roof, with two mixers permanently installed into the cement floor of the barn.

“Is it the way of the future?” asks Vaage. “I don’t know. But I do believe we are going to be seeing more of this.” PD

Jennifer Janak is a 2014 Progressive Dairyman editorial intern.

PHOTOS
Oak Valley Dairy, in Burley, Idaho, wanted to install an automated, centralized feeding center to improve efficiency on the farm. They were ready to focus more on the cows and worry less about employee management. Photos by Jennifer Janak.

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