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Facility Factors Related to Automatic Milking Systems

Facility Factors Related to Automatic Milking Systems

By Dan Mcfarland

Adoption of automatic milking systems (AMS) continues to gain popularity on dairy farms.  The AMS removes routine, intensive and time sensitive milking activities typical with conventional milking systems. This can allow more flexible labor, increased focus on other aspects of the farm, better herd management information, and improved quality of life.

The AMS challenges include more specialized labor for system maintenance and a timely response to malfunctions. Monitoring cow performance by computer screen may lead to less 'hands on time.' Therefore, the manager must schedule dedicated time to observe cow health and condition.

The AMS is a complete, coordinated system that impacts housing, feeding and overall dairy herd management. To be successful the manager must have a good understanding of automatic milking, and carefully monitor performance of both the system and cows using it.

Voluntary entry to AMS units is essential. Therefore, all cows need to be healthy, sound, and mobile.

Providing the basic dairy housing features that allow cows to be healthy and productive is essential. These include:

  • Good ventilation to provide excellent air quality during all seasons.
  • A clean, dry comfortable resting surface.
  • Good access to feed and drinking water.
  • Confident 'non-skid' footing.
  • Protection from weather extremes.

Additional elements that benefit caregivers include the ability for good observation and access, simple sorting, isolation, and restraint of cows needing attention, convenient feed delivery, expedient housekeeping, and safety.

While minimizing disruptions to the cow’s day in a facility using AMS is encouraged, regular chores including bedding addition, feed delivery and push-up, and manure collection and removal need to be done. Fortunately, dairy cows tend to become accustomed to regular, consistent routines, especially those that benefit their comfort and health. Balance what needs to be done and minimizing interruptions.

Regardless of how cows are milked, a well-designed dairy system includes adequate space for the care of special needs cows. Automatic milking systems provide the opportunity for individual cows to be easily sorted as they exit the AMS unit.

Special needs cows may be described as any animal needing individual attention or requiring unique considerations (B. Stone, 2000). This describes every cow in the herd. At any time, there are individual and/or groups of cows that require short- or long-term care.

Cows sorted from the lactating cow group require access to an AMS unit while being cared for in the special needs area.

The special needs area requires space for both 'long-term' and 'short-term' care.

Long-term special needs cows require care for more than 12 hours. This group may consist of cows that are ill, lame, treated, post-fresh, and perhaps first lactation cows requiring AMS training. These 'residents' typically make up five to seven percent of the milking herd.

Short-term special needs cows are typically working groups that occupy the area for less than 12 hours. These animals may need breeding, udder singeing/clipping, hoof trimming, pregnancy check, or other treatment. These 'visitors' usually make up about 10 percent of the milking herd.

Both the long-term and short-term groups can be combined in a single pen with access to an AMS unit. Provide 100 to 150 square feet of bedded area per cow based on the long-term resident numbers. Along with good access to drinking water, allow approximately 30 inches of linear feed space per cow and enough self-locking stanchions for the combined groups. A treatment chute is useful in this area as well.

Two other unique cow groups include close-up dry cows and maternity cows. These animals make up approximately one-third of the total dry cow group, but actual numbers can fluctuate to 35 to 40 percent in this pen. These cows do not need access to an AMS unit and may be housed in a pen adjacent to the long and short-term care pen. Offer 150 to 200 square feet of bedded area per cow. Provide self-locking stanchions at the feeding area with approximately 30 inches of linear feed space per cow, and good access to drinking water. Other considerations include a headgate located in a rear corner, and gates that create a 12-foot by 12-foot temporary isolation pen.

Adequate care of special needs cows is necessary on all dairy farms but more so with AMS. Voluntary entry to the milking unit is necessary, so cows must be healthy, sound, and mobile. Adequate ventilation during all seasons, along with good design and management of resting areas, feeding and water areas, and floor surfaces can help. Even so, each herd member will require short-or long-term care during their lactation. The AMS allow the manager to easily sort an individual and/or groups of cows, as they exit the milking unit, to a dedicated space for treatment and care. Be sure to include sufficient space for the care of these ‘special’ cows. The handling of special needs cows is one of the main areas separating the top from mediocre dairy operations (B. Stone, 2000).

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