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Hoof treatment on robotic dairies: What are the options?

PD Editor Karen Lee Published on 09 August 2013

Poor hoof care is exceptionally detrimental to robotic milking facilities. Due to their unique traffic flow and design, proper planning and thought is needed for incorporating a footbath or wash system.

“It is a different system. You’re not taking all of the animals as a group and moving them to the parlor,” Dan Schreiner, Lely North America Farm Management Support (FMS) adviser, says.



Francisco Rodriguez, DeLaval dairy management adviser – AMS, adds that many dairy producers installing robots come from tiestall facilities where there isn’t a culture of footbath use.

Some robotic producers choose to sacrifice cow comfort to save on labor. Using slatted floors and mattresses can save time but also lead to a higher likelihood of lameness.

“Lameness is the key to a robotic facility. If cows are lame, they won’t go through the robot,” Rodriguez says. “If cows are healthy, you don’t spend labor fetching cows.”

“Since hoof health is critical to success in robotic milking, the strategic use of an effective footbathing routine is essential,” Jack Rodenburg, DairyLogix robotic milking facilities consultant, says.

Option 1: At the exit
Some producers place a footbath immediately at the robot exit. This location is known to reduce visits to the robot on footbathing days.


Morten Jakobsen with Protekta Inc. says one farm he’s worked with experienced a drop in milkings per day from 2.8 to 2.4 with a footbath positioned right after the robot. “The cows could see it was there and didn’t want to walk through it,” he says.

This is more likely to happen if the footbath isn’t kept there all the time, or it is left empty most of the time. Keeping the footbath in place and using soapy water on non-treatment days will help the cows grow accustomed to walking through it.

Rodenburg also notes that when not in use, permanent footbaths can become a source of contamination when they get filled with manure.

Another method is to move the footbath to an exit lane further from the robot.

Either in the exit lane from each robotic milking stall in free-traffic herds or in the selection gate of forced-traffic herds, Rodenburg explains the downfall here is aggressive cows with healthy feet get many more passes through the bath than needed.

This can be detrimental to the life of the solution, and if a strong solution is used, it can be detrimental to the cow.


Using a selection gate can help prevent this, as it could send only selected cows through the footbath to avoid extra passes for the frequently visiting cow.

Schreiner says farms with an autosort to a special-needs area will place a footbath there and select a certain number of cows to be routed through each day.

Producers should avoid placing a footbath where cows have a choice, he says. A dominant cow not wanting to pass through a footbath can cause a back-up in cow movement from the robot.

According to Rodriguez, the best location for an automatic footbath is after a sort gate. “If you run an automatic footbath, you have to do it every day,” he says.

Footbaths really need to be out every day 24-7 because cows can enter the robot at any time. Plus, that way it becomes a routine for the dairyman and a job they are less likely to forget or put off until tomorrow, Rodriguez notes.

“Lameness is that important – it should be part of a daily routine,” he says.

If he were to build a robotic milking facility today, Rodriguez says he would put it in an exit lane, regardless of the traffic pattern, and put fluid in it every day.

“More important than the location of the footbath is to keep water or solution in it at all times, or the cows will react,” he says. “Regardless of treatment day, there always has to be water or solution in the bath.”

Tom Oesch, Jr., a dairy producer from Alto, Michigan, who is featured in the panel in a separate article , says he placed footbaths as the cows exit the robot in his free-traffic barn built a couple of years ago.

However, if he did it again, he says he’d put the footbaths in the crossover because he doesn’t like the added manure by the robot.

Option 2: In the crossover
Placing a footbath in the crossover farthest from the robot can be done in one of two ways, Schreiner says, either in a fixed lane or with a temporary footbath.

The group of cows is then walked slowly around the pen and through the filled footbath once or twice in a row, once or twice a week.

Rodenburg acknowledges this method does disturb the cows, but at the same time it keeps harsh chemicals away from the milk and from the robot.

There may also be merit in combining this herding activity with passage through a selection gate so that planned handling activities of sorted cows can be carried out on a routine basis in conjunction with footbathing, he adds.

“With less manure exposure over a shorter time, chemicals work better and there is a uniform number of passes per cow. In free-traffic barns that do not employ tollgate layouts, this method is my current preference,” Rodenburg says.

This is also the method Schreiner would prefer to use. “I like seeing it on the end of the barn with a permanent crossover,” he says. “My preference is to place it away from the robot so it is not associated with it.”

Option 3: In the robot
Another option that has been in use in Denmark for the past five years and has recently become available in North America is a hoof-wash system installed inside the robotic milking unit.

For this system, a 1.5-inch tall plate containing two nozzles is mounted on the floor in the back of the robot. When the milking is complete and the robotic arm moves to spray the cow’s teats, the hoof washer reacts to that signal and water is released at 130 to 155 psi. The back feet are sprayed for 6.5 to 7.5 seconds.

The same system can also apply a treatment product, which comes in through a separate line from the control box and will spray for a second or so about the same time the door opens for the cow to exit.

“We don’t delay the time spent by the cow in the robot,” Jakobsen, who’s distributing the system in North America, says.

It also does not interfere with the software or mechanics of the robot, as the signal is obtained from sensors placed on the robotic arm.

The system can be turned to off, set to always be on or turned on and off automatically based on time. Producers Jakobsen has worked with set it to turn on at 6 a.m. and off at 6 p.m. every day. They run the treatment during the same time but only on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday.

He recommends leaving it on all the time after installation, then after a while, set it to a timed program.

Jakobsen reports that a farm he installed it on in Canada was averaging 150 milkings per day prior to its use.

The system was turned on for the first time at low pressure (60 psi), and that day the number of milkings dropped to 140.

By the second day, the number of milkings was back to 150. That producer now operates it at high pressure for 12 hours on and 12 hours off and doesn’t see a difference in the amount of milkings for either time frame.

Since the hooves are cleaned first, the treatment product is more effective and less is needed. According to Jakobsen, this system has an 80 percent savings in chemical use compared to a footbath.

Copper sulfate and formaldehyde are not to be used with this system, but iodine would be OK depending on the concentration.

“Anything acidic or corrosive would be harmful to the equipment. The majority of robots have rubber mats so (various treatment products) could also cause premature wear,” Schreiner says.

Rodriguez hasn’t heard of this system yet, but he is familiar with a farm in British Columbia that is spraying hooves with water just outside the robot. The spray nozzle at the exit of the robot works as a complement to an every-other-day footbath.

“Used every day after every milking, the cows get used to it,” he says.

Schreiner does not approve of such a device inside the robot. “In a free-flow system, you want the experience in the robot to be positive,” he says. “The cow remembers their experience and weighs that into their decision to return. If there is something that hurts their feet, they might not want to go in again.”

In Rodenburg’s experience, he says, “both those using water only and those using mild chemical solutions are reporting improved hoof health from these systems, but spraying feet with chemicals in the milking stall may be frowned upon by milk quality regulators in some jurisdictions.”

Jakobsen says the nozzles are aimed to spray at the floor level, and that is where the product falls. It has been tested in Denmark for years, and the milk board there has no concerns, he adds.

Regardless of the method, Rodriguez says producers need to have a plan for what they are going to do to clean and treat hooves, and it should be incorporated into the design of the facility.

“Always consider lameness as an issue,” he says. “In robotic barns, it is even more important to follow the standards set for footbaths and cow comfort.” PD

Karen Lee
Progressive Dairyman