The Costs of Feeding with Robots

Posted by Team Lely on Jun 25, 2015
Team Lely

Decisions to make when changing from conventional milking to automatic milking

Laura Martin, M.Sc, a dairy nutritionist with Kenpal Farm Products in Centralia, Ontario wrote this article that appeared in the Western Dairy Farmer in May 2015. Here is an excerpt. 

As more and more farms change from conventional milking to automatic milking systems, some important nutrition decisions also need to be made. Adjustments need to be made to the TMR at the bunk, and a quality robot pellet needs to be fed while the cows are being milked. Many producers are concerned that these nutrition changes will increase feed costs and consider them to be a serious drawback to robotic milking, but does it actually cost more to feed these herds?

Cost of feed with dairy robots

With free-flow robot traffic, which is used by the majority of robot farms in Ontario, changes need to be made at the bunk so that cows have more motivation to go into the robot. Since this mix is no longer the total ration for the cows the new term is PMR or partially mixed ration. The general rule is to balance the nutrition in the PMR for about 5 - 7 liters less production than the herd’s average production. So if the herd is averaging 35 L then the PMR will be balanced for 28 - 30 L. By reducing the production expectation of the PMR the dry matter intake, energy and total protein of the mix is lowered. This prompts the cows to go looking for more, which they will find in the robot. Forage moistures in the PMR need to be closely monitored.

If the forages get drier, then the PMR will contain more dry matter and may reduce robot visits. The fiber in the PMR also needs to be high enough to support butterfat production in the high producing cows that are receiving a lot of robot pellet. This robot pellet contains the missing nutrition from the PMR and is designed to be fed at different feeding rates depending on production.

Enticing cows to the pellets

The robot pellet is vital to the nutrition program for a robot farm. It not only has to replace the nutrition that has been removed from the PMR it needs to entice the cows to enter the robot.

A good quality pellet can make all the difference when it comes to not having to fetch cows. Palatable ingredients are important. Cows have a sweet tooth so sweet ingredients like molasses and flavors can attract cows to the robot and keep them coming back for more.

Unpalatable ingredients like minerals should be kept to a minimum. Providing readily available sources of starch are important. Cows will be looking for the energy they are missing in the PMR so it is important to provide it in the robot pellet.  By providing energy in the pellet, cows can be fed to production with higher producing cows getting more pellets and therefore more nutrition to support that production. The pellet itself needs to be quite hard. It has to arrive in the robot feeder with minimal fines so that the cows can eat it as they milk.

Summary: Big changes to nutrition programs must happen too 

On a 60 cow herd, a 15% milk increase allows for 8 cows to be sold to keep the same amount of liters in the tank. With only 52 cows needing to be fed rather than 60 cows, feed cost savings add up to almost $10 per day or over $3,000 per year. Of course, if you don’t get an increase in milk on the robots then the feed is going to cost more.

More than just the milking routine needs to change with robots, there are big changes to the nutrition program as well. Changes are required at the feed bunk that help reduce diet costs and increase visits to the robot. Quality robot pellets are worth the cost if they encourage the cows to return to the robot and support the increased production. So while it may seem like a feeding program for a robotic milking herd may cost more, if you get more milk and can sell cows and therefore feed less cows, that can more than make up for the added expense.

To read the entire article, see the May 2015 issue of Western Dairy Farmer. Keep current on Lely news with the Lely podcast Dairy Robot Radio.


Tags: Automatic Feeding System, Free Cow Traffic, Milk Quality, Robotic Dairy, Robotic Milking, Smart Feeding