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High-Tech Dairy Cow Comfort

A high-tech dairy barn in a distinctly old-fashioned area is proving itself this winter for a British dairy producer who immigrated to western Canada about 15 years ago. 

Cows at Happy Rock Holsteins Limited, Gladstone, Manitoba, moved into their new all-robotic, computer-assisted barn in September 2013. Two months later, milk production jumped about 30% and herd health soared.

Dairy producer Steve Smith, after 37 years of milking cows in the United Kingdom and Canada, has the barn he’s dreamt about. He and wife Nicola hope it is well suited for their children, Amy, Hannah, and Joe. 

The $3.4 million concrete barn has a 392-head capacity, but it’s without a milking parlor. Computers and infrared ID tags for each animal are at the heart of the system. Robots handle nearly all the chores. The need for staffing, Smith says, is down to about eight hours a day that includes record keeping, herd health, feeding, fresh bedding, and other management. 

Lely introduced the Astronaut A4 robotic I-flow milking stall about the time Smith was committing to barn construction. Design capacity is approximately 180 visits a day for 60 cows. Smith ordered six A4 milking stalls at about $200,000 each.  

Comfort Milking

According to Lely, the Astronaut A4 achieves a new cow-comfort level. Cows approach the milking stall, walking beside a wall and into an open framework, which ends with their bowl of measured feed. The bowl is mounted on the exit gate. 

While a cow eats, the robot works below to prep and milk the cow. With milking completed and teat dip applied, the exit gate and feed bowl slide out of reach, into the wall. In response, the cow simply walks forward again to clear the milking stall and to make room for the next in line. Always, three or four cows are ready for their turn. 

“This box is built on the outside of the robot. Instead of walking into a completely enclosed stall, the cow walks straight in and straight out. There are no angles, no turning or corners, just a couple sensing bars,” says service technician Jim Voth, Penner Farm Services, Blumenort, Manitoba.

Comfort Stalls

Smith’s barn was taking shape in early 2013 when Lely introduced the Commodus cubicle for a hygienic radical new approach to cow comfort. His dairy is the first in Canada that is fully equipped with the Commodus bedding stall system. 

The Commodus separates cows with curved, tongue-like steel tubes rather than walls. Each tube is hinged to a central concrete wall that fully supports the tubular device horizontally at a level about 1 meter (yard) above the bedding area.

“The Commodus only segregates cows when they’re standing. They can lie wherever they like underneath it, with no vertical barriers between them,” explains Voth. “When they’re lying down and looking around, it’s all an open area. They feel less confined, so it adds to the level of cow comfort.”   

Mobile Robots

Smith also equipped his facility with quiet, self-propelled feed and manure robots. The smaller robot is a battery-operated Lely Discovery. It glides behind the Commodus resting stalls every half hour, pushing fresh manure through the slatted concrete floor and down to a liquid manure pit. 

The larger Lely Juno 150 travels in the feed alley, pushing back the feed that cows have nosed out of reach. It cycles through the feed alley about once every two hours. 

“It’s a simple job but very important,” notes Voth. “When they hear the robot beep, cows perk up and move to the feed bunk because they know fresh feed is coming. The more constant the access to feed, the more the cow can ingest, and the more milk she can produce. Generally, customers see an increase in milk production from installing a Juno, although the numbers will vary with the herd.” 

Health Control

Cows coming in for milking may go to one of two Astronaut A4 machines that are equipped with a scale (Gravitor) that generates a continuous weight record. 

Coming out after milking, cows pass through a gated sorting and four-way selection system known as the Lely Grazeway. It reads the ID tag and determines whether that cow should go back to the main herd, off to the footbath (twice a week), back to the robot (if it hasn’t been milked), or off to a separation pen for either breeding, treating, or hoof trimming. 

Cows get an automatic two-stage footbath in the Lely Walkway, with fresh water followed by a topical solution, according to a schedule set by Smith.

Voth says most robotics in Smith’s dairy are computer controlled and linked to a server computer in the main office. The server has complete historic information on each cow or calf, on the robots, on the feed supply, and on barn conditions for temperature and ventilation. The server also has a nearly continuous stream of new data from sensors.

The infrared tags have three reporting components. They identify the animal. They carry a motion sensor that flags when a cow is ready for breeding. They have a microphone that tracks how much time a cow is chewing her cud. Dramatic change may mean the cow is sick or ready for breeding.  

Each visit to the Astronaut A4 is recorded. A load cell measures overall output at each milking. Other sensors measure milk output from each quarter for color and conductivity, which are good indicators of health.  

If Smith wants to collect a milk sample for lab testing for a specific cow, he can program that operation into the Lely Shuttle, which attaches to the Astronaut A4. 

“I feed and bed the cows twice a day. A look at the screen tells me which cows need inseminating and how long they’ve been in heat,” Smith says. 

“The whole purpose of all of this automation is for cow comfort, milk quality, herd health, better management, and less labor,” Voth says.

“The average cell count now is running at about 180,000,” Smith says. “The cows are up to 2.8 milkings a day on their own timing, and the milk yield has gone up. I was running around 24 liters per cow per day in the old barn. The yield now is up about 7 liters per cow per day.” 

Learn More:

Steve Smith

Happy Rock Holsteins, Ltd.

Jim Voth

Penner Farm Services


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