Earlier this year, I wrote about the findings of a research report on Canadian dairy farmers who had switched to robot milkers. The research was published in the Journal of Dairy Science. The researchers from Universities of Calgary, Guelph and British Columbia surveyed 217 farmers from eight provinces.
Let’s revisit the research on udder health and milk quality. The majority of farmers who switched to robots thought that mastitis either stayed the same or went down; only 13 % thought that mastitis had gotten worse.
Findings were a bit different for bacterial counts in milk. Just about one-third of farmers reported that bacterial counts got worse. There was a difference between farms that installed different brands of robots. Farmers who installed DeLaval robots were more than twice as likely to report an increase in bacterial counts in milk than farmers who installed Lely robots. The majority of farmers who installed Lely robots reported no change in bacterial counts. Overall, 40 % of farmers thought that there was no change in bacterial counts. Thirty-eight per cent of farmers thought that mastitis cows were more likely to be culled after they switched to robots.
I have had many farmers tell me that some cows do not make the transition to robot milking systems very well. About 25 % of farmers in this study reported that culling had gone up after the switch. The majority (59 %) felt that culling had stayed just about the same. Again, there were differences between the two different brands of robot milkers. Forty-five percent of farmers who installed Lely robots reported that there had been no change in culling, compared to 14 % of farmers who installed DeLaval robots. More farmers who installed DeLaval robots reported an increase in culling (17 %) compared to farmers who installed Lely robots (7 %).
The most common reasons that cows were culled after the switch were fertility issues, udder health and lameness along with the expected teat placement and udder conformation issues.
While I am on the subject of interest to farmers who have installed robot milking system, at the recent National Mastitis Council conference, one of the presenters made a plea for a sire index based on traits that are important to farmers who use robot milkers. Teat size and placement are traits that are highly heritable and can be more important to farmers using robot milkers. Udder conformation also has a high heritability and is important for proper and speedy attachment (and milking) in robot systems. Time spent milking after unit attachment helps dictate the efficient use of each robot unit, so this would be another characteristic that is of interest to owners of robot-milked dairy farms. The presenter argued that traits that are more important on robot milking farms are not yet available in North America but already included in indices used to select sires in the European Union.
At the rate that new robot units are being installed on North American dairy farms, it is not surprising that interest in how to deal with that transition is so high.
Dr. Robert Tremblay is a veterinarian for Boehringer-Ingelheim and lives near Guelph.