Robotic milking units bring two treasures to dairy science research – cow freedom and abundant data. No longer constrained by a twice-daily milking regimen, researchers are evaluating cow timing preference.
For example, can changing feeding times in pasture-based dairies change when cattle go to be milked? Researchers in Australia say “yes,” using robotic milkers to allow cows to "tell" researchers when they preferred to be milked at will. And while many animal activists say cattle prefer to be outdoors at all times, researches in Norway say that isn’t the case. That research team provided cattle silage indoors coupled with a nighttime pasture and found cattle only ate the pasture in the afternoon and early evening. Since cattle are generally milked at their leisure in a robotic milking system, this could be described as a more “natural” evaluation of cows preferred behavior. Yet as we seek a more “natural” approach to milking, cows still showed researchers in Canada they preferred receiving some concentrates while getting milked rather than receiving it in the mixed ration alone. Researchers evaluated behaviors such as lying time, trips to the robot, ration sorting and milk production.
Still, no one is claiming robotic milking systems are perfect. Researchers in Minnesota found primiparous cows in early lactation struggled to adapt to robotic milking systems compared to multiparous cows, and an invited review in the Journal of Dairy Science says robotic milking systems are associated with higher somatic cell and bacteria counts.
However, robotic milking systems do offer a treasure trove of data researchers are only beginning to uncover. Researchers in the Netherlands suggest changes in udder depth and distance between teats measured by the robotic milker may one day quickly identify udder edema or clinical mastitis. Norwegian researchers report automatically recorded data on milking behavior such as the number of milking unit kickoffs, incomplete milkings, flow rate and box time may help breed for robotic milking efficiency one day in the future.
Robots are considered an icon of the future in pop culture. For American dairies, they have been in use for years. Where our future lies is in using their treasure trove of data and perfecting how we accommodate cows’ preference. The future is bright.