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Managing robot housing is key for quality milk

Andy Lenkaitis for Progressive Dairyman Published on 04 June 2019
cow being milked

When you walk into your home after a long, hard day of work, you’d probably like to enter a space that’s clean, calm and comfortable. Messy, disruptive and uncomfortable living quarters can cause stress and anxiety. 

The same situation applies to your cows when they walk back into their housing environment after milking – they prefer clean, calm and comfortable. But farms with box robots face a challenge: maintaining the housing environment with minimal disruption. 

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Since the cows don’t leave the pen as a group for milking, the space is always occupied. There’s no ideal time to clean alleys and waterers, bed stalls or deliver feed without causing disruption. Disruptions lead to stress, which can ultimately affect milk quality. 

Here are some tips to help successfully manage the robot housing environment to maximize quality milk production.

Let the data lead you

Data should be a key driver for your management tasks. But before you can start applying the information, you need to know what data is most important, what it tells you and how it correlates with the cow.

The first step to successfully use robot data is to believe it. If you take too long to trust the information in front you, you might miss diagnosing a problem early on to provide timely treatment. For example, you notice a full, hard quarter on a cow that just completed milking. What data did you miss that could have alerted you to early signs before seeing clinical signs?

Become an investigator when scenarios like this occur. Revisit key data reports and determine what data changes could have led to that health issue.

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Proactively looking for key data points can help detect mastitis sooner to reduce treatment and keep more quality milk in the tank. Some individual cow reports to review daily include:

  • Milk deviation or decline
  • Incomplete or problematic milkings
  • Udder health monitoring (conductivity or somatic cell counts [SCC]) 
  • Eating, rumination and inactive time

When you look at a conductivity report, keep in mind that conductivity is not always directly correlated to SCC. Be sure to use SCC results from your robot’s SCC sensors if available, or an on-farm or milk lab test to verify a high SCC. Review these results along with bulk tank cultures, and consider running individual cultures based on what you find. Culture results will help you understand the mastitis organisms you’re dealing with so you can use the right active ingredient for treatment. 

Work with your vet to develop mastitis treatment protocols tailored to your herd. Keep track of your results to determine cure rates and effective treatments.

Robots give you a lot of data, but the cow still spends most of her time in the barn, so you need to ensure she has a good experience there. 

Manage activities for cow cleanliness

Since every cow is on a different schedule in the robot barn, minimizing disruption is important to give each cow plenty of time to rest and produce quality milk. Keeping the stall and the animal clean provides the best chance to limit new environmental mastitis cases and increases the effectiveness of the milking prep system.

Review robot utilization data to understand the best timing for management activities. Depending on your distribution of milkings and visits throughout the day, you can tailor a chore schedule to minimize cow disruption while maintaining cow cleanliness.

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Manage manure removal by paying attention to the cows and their habits. You want to reduce the amount of manure cows drag into the stalls by keeping the alleys clean. Watch how cows lay in their stalls and where their manure drops to keep them clean in the stalls. For example, if you use sawdust bedding, you could set the scraper wings a few inches away from the curb to keep the area dry and give tails a clean place to lay with the rejected shavings.

Here are some other cow cleanliness tips:

  • Clean stalls when most of the cows are up to minimize disruption 
  • Use an appropriate amount of bedding, and groom stalls for even bedding distribution
  • Keep tails trimmed to prevent manure buildup and reduce manure brought into the robot
  • Maintain short udder hair by singeing or clipping to keep material out of the robot
  • Limit overcrowding to reduce alley layers and give beds a chance to dry out and be available for the next animal

Account for seasonal changes

With the summer heat and humidity in full swing, manage the following areas closely to maintain a clean, comfortable environment for your cows.

Waterers: Keep the water clean and smelling fresh. Does it look murky? Is there feed or manure in it? If you wouldn’t want to drink it, a cow probably wouldn’t either. Since cows drink more water during warm weather, you’ll want to clean waterers more frequently – usually a couple of times a week. Time the cleaning of waterers with manure removal to reduce the amount of liquid in the alley.

Fly control: Take measures to control flies. When flies are present in the robot, they can cause cows to dance during unit attachment resulting in incomplete milkings. A dirty robot can also attract flies. Spray out the inside of the boxes, and clean out the feed bowl a couple of times a week to reduce manure buildup and keep feed fresh.

Air movement: Ensure good air movement throughout the barn. Try to maintain 5 to 7 miles per hour over the cows to maintain cooling and keep the stall beds dry.

Successful management of the robot housing environment for milk quality requires you to be in tune to what your cows and robot data tells you. Let the data drive your decisions, but don’t forget the basics of good cow management. Work with your robot milking equipment dealer to get the most out of your robot system.  end mark

PHOTO: Spray out the inside of the robot, and clean out the feed bowl a couple of times a week to reduce manure buildup and keep feed fresh. Photo courtesy of GEA.

Andy Lenkaitis
  • Andy Lenkaitis

  • AMS Herd Management Systems Engineer
  • GEA
  • (630) 548-8291
  • Email Andy Lenkaitis

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