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Robot pellets – it’s all about what’s inside

Matt Homan Published on 06 August 2015

cow and man illustration

The robotic milking manufacturers’ offerings continue to change, bringing with them new innovation each year. But one thing has stayed constant through all the technology changes: the need for a supplement. The type and quantity used to entice or distract the dairy animal varies depending on the robotic milking system.

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Although some robotic milking centers have had success using higher-moisture grains through the system, higher-moisture feeds can run into problems with heating inside the bulk feed bin during certain times of the year. The result is a caking effect of the grain. This can put a real strain on the flowability of the product through an auger system. To avoid these concerns, many robotic dairy farms are choosing to feed a pellet instead.

Pellet feeding is not a new concept. Pelleted feeds have been part of livestock feeding since the early 1900s. Although pellets have been around for a long time, what goes in them continues to evolve.

Today, numerous additives can be put into a pellet to improve enticement of the pellet such as flavoring agents, sugar sources, proprietary products, plant protein sources and grain sources, to name a few. But has the role they served changed? This question was posed to professionals in the robotic milking industry.

Dairy producers using pelleted supplements should consider the following questions when having a pelleted feed formulated: First, does the pelleted feed complement the feeding system? Second, does the pelleted feed complement the forages on the farm? Third, does the pelleted feed complement the dairy animals being fed?

Pellets that complement the feeding system move easily and are typically “rock-hard.” Any pellet will have its durability and integrity challenged as it goes through a spiral-veyer or augers that span the distance from the bulk feed bin to the robotic milking center.

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But what does rock-hard really mean? Simply put, a rock-hard pellet does not fall apart. This may seem so simple and obvious, but most pellet manufacturers will admit this is as much an art as it is a science. Certain ingredients “pellet” better than others.

Physical characteristics such as pounds per cubic foot, percent fat, percent neutral detergent fiber (NDF), abrasiveness, moisture absorbability and pellet formation ability explain why some ingredients pellet better than others. Does this mean that commodities that do not pellet well should be avoided? Absolutely not, although attention to the percent of any particular ingredient must be taken into consideration.

Because of this, the feed industry created a ranking system to determine how rock-hard the finished pellet is. The pellet durability index (PDI) gives feed personnel the chance to predict the potential hardness of a pellet. However, PDI ingredient selection is only half of the equation; the other half is the relative structure of the ingredients used.

Mark Rose, Lely consultant, says, “The different ingredients that make up a pellet each have different characteristics which allow for varying degrees of carbohydrate and protein degradation.” The selection of the appropriate ingredients can have a direct correlation to the success of the pellet program. Fines can be the end result if ingredient selection is not considered.

Second, the robot pellet should also complement the forages or grains on the farm. Ask yourself this simple question: Are the forages or grains you feed the same as what another robotic milking operation feeds?

“We cannot forget that pellet NDF does not replace forage physically effective NDF and feeding quality, or highly digestible forages that lead to maintaining rumen health,” says DeLaval consultant Elizabeth French.

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“When we feed a cow, it is critical to remember we are feeding the entire microbial population. By regular feeding of sources with the highest quality, we can provide rumination, saliva production and water consumption to maximize milk potential.” You need to have the discussion with your nutritionist to determine the best ingredients to complement your on-farm forages and grains.

The robot pellet should also complement the lactating dairy animal. How is this accomplished? You must create a pellet that the dairy cow “craves” daily. This has been called creating “cow candy.” Cow candy can be a combination of grains, plant proteins, flavors, energy products, minerals and proprietary feed ingredients. Consistency is the key.

Cows are creatures of habit. They would prefer the feed showed up at the same time each day at the same temperature with the exact same consistency as the day before. For this reason, I believe robot pellet formulas should remain “locked formulas.”

A locked formula means the ingredients and the quantity used remain the same batch to batch and load to load. If you believe you need to make a change to the formula, make small changes. I prefer to make single-ingredient changes and monitor performance. However, some situations call for more drastic steps to improve acceptance or cow health.

Clearly the above shows the true advantages of pellets over on-farm grains. However, there are disadvantages as well. “The disadvantage is the balancing act when feeding greater amounts of pellets (greater than 8 pounds per day). This requires a greater thought process on the ingredients being added to a pellet while maintaining proper rumen health,” French says.

Additionally, Rose says, “The main disadvantage is when pellets lack quality and durability. Any robot producer could attest to what a load of marginal-quality pellets does to cows visiting the robot.”

In conclusion, what’s inside the pellet can have huge repercussions. Ultimately, the dairy cow will be the judge and jury as to the acceptance and performance of the pellet. PD

ILLUSTRATION: Illustration by Kristen Phillips.

Matt Homan
  • Matt Homan

  • Ruminant Nutrition Consultant
  • United Cooperative
  • Email Matt Homan

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