By Andrew Campbell
When you think about a farm, advanced technology isn’t always the first thing that comes to mind, is it? In reality, farmers are investing a lot of time and a lot of money into buying and learning how to operate complicated software systems, advanced sensors and camera units, and even robots. For dairy farmers, robots have been available for 20 years, but until recently, they haven’t been adopted at a high rate.
Today, when a new dairy barn is built, the most common milking system to install is a system that milks the cows by itself. On top of that, you can buy robots that feed the cows, feed the calves, sweep up feed and even scrape the manure up. Some farms, like Todd’s family’s farm, use all of that technology and more to help them look after their cows. So, if you want to see what the future looks like on the farm, come for a tour of Holmdale Farms and see what technology farmers are using today.
Is this a family farm? Who’s involved?
Holmdale Farms has been operating since 1874. I (Todd) am the fifth generation, and my son Keaton is the sixth generation. Keaton takes care of feeding the cows and managing the breeding program. Family is what keeps us going. That’s what’s got us this far and, hopefully, with automation making work more enjoyable, doing the jobs that we can do and doing them well so that we can continue on to be a family farm.
We also have a couple of employees that work in the barn, but by using technology, this small group of people can control and run the dairy operation.
The robots on the farm are very reliable and they maintain a consistent environment, which keeps the cows calm. The robots ensure there are never loud noises or sudden unexpected movements. Further, we don’t have to worry about staff not showing up for work or being sick which is important as a dairy farm runs everyday of the year.
Let’s look at some of that automation in the feeding room. How does your automated feed system work?
We use a system that is called a Lely Vector feed system. Similar to a giant mixing bowl, we use a bridge crane with a grapple for loading the dry ingredients like haylage and corn silage in the system. This is usually referred to as a Total Mixed Ration (TMR) because all the feed a cow needs to be mixed together. Outside of the barn, we have several bins with products like corn distillers, soybean meal, canola meal, dry corn, and some minerals that can be added into the system.
How does the Feed System work? How does it know what it’s doing?
There are six different feed mixes or rations fed in the barn, depending on whether it is for the milking cows, cows that recently had a calf, dry cows that aren’t producing milk, or younger animals that aren’t very big. The feed system will drive out around the barn and knows the locations for each group of cows that are being fed. When the laser on the machine detects an area that needs more feed, it will drive back to the feeding room and communicate through Bluetooth with the bridge crane system to get more feed.
On the floor of the feeding room, there are markings where we can place the different dry feed products. Once the mixer communicates with the grapple, it will lift and deliver the correct dry commodities for the ration to the system. The system has a weigh scale to make sure the right amount is added. It then mixes up the feed and delivers it to the cattle. Then it will sweep up feed in other mangers, looking for other areas that are short on feed.
The system is completely wireless technology that runs on a battery pack. The only time the mixer is connected is when it plugs into charge while it is loading its next load of feed.
Why do different cows get different rations?
We have 6 different rations that we feed depending on if the animals are milk cows, fresh cows, dry cows or young females (heifers). This is because they each have different nutritional requirements. For example, heifers have different ration requirements than a milk cow in terms of vitamins, protein, etc. Milk cows will eat 120 pounds of a feed a day where a calf might only eat 15 pounds of feed per day.
Moving from the feed room into the main barn. How many cows are in the barn? And what are they laying on?
There are 130 cows and if they were to spread out evenly (which never happens because cattle are herd animals), they would each have 130 square feet of space in the barn. This type of barn requires a bigger footprint, it takes more square feet per cow, but the comfort level is unmatched.
The cows are laying on a type of compost. Not the stuff of food scraps, but of sawdust that is tilled into the manure twice daily and it heats and sterilizes itself. The compost makes an exceptional place for the cows to lay down. It’s softer than any beach. If you walk in the compost you would be up past your ankles. It’s like a sterilized beach basically for them to roam and lay down on.
Do you keep them inside all the time? Why do you do that?
When we built the barn, we considered letting the cows outside, but in our experience, the cows only went outside at night.
We believe it’s better for the cattle to stay in the barn because we can control the cattle’s comfort level better inside. The barn is equipped with a lot of fans that can move air around. There are no flies inside with all the fans running and if the temperature inside becomes too warm there are water sprinklers inside to cool the cows. When it gets really hot, the cattle get 30 seconds of water sprayed on them every five minutes and every time they’re milked, they get a full shower.
Let’s look at the robot that actually milks the cows. How does it work?
A robot milking machine is all about the cow. It’s all about individualism. Each cow is wearing a responder on their neck that tells the milking robot which cow has come in to be milked.
The milking robot is looking to receive about eight litres of milk or else the robot just sends the cow back to the barn and the cow can come back later when they have a little more milk. On average, cows will be milked three times a day. The average cow in the barn will produce 45 litres of milk per cow per day, with about 14- 15 litres of milk at each milking.
Each cow is milked approximately every eight hours, but the cow doesn’t run by a clock. They graze, they eat, they lay down, and they do what they want when they want to. There is no set schedule. The feed is there, the water is there and the robot milking machine is there.
The milking robot puts out a small portion of feed to entice the cows to come in so that they keep their visits up. We don’t want cows to go too long in between milkings because that’s not healthy for the cow and it’s not healthy for the farm either. Plus, we get more milk with three milkings a day.
Do cows get a treat for going in to be milked?
Absolutely. It’s a sweetened feed that’s high in energy. Higher producing cows get about six and a half kilograms of that pellet a day so that their energy requirements are supported nutritionally. A lower producing cow, for example, or a cow that is pregnant and is going to go for two months to a dry cow area where she isn’t milked until her next calf, will only get two or three kilograms because she doesn’t need all that energy to make milk.
Do the robots run all day long and can a cow come and go as she pleases?
The milking robots at our farm run about 19 hours a day and usage is spread out through the day and night. Visits to the robot milking machine rarely drop through the night. The cows still get up when they see the milking machines are empty and will go and check it out. They don’t have to wait to be milked in the night; they can get something to drink, grab a mouthful of food, and then lay down again.
In the feedroom, the computer was keeping track of feed and how much cows eat. Does that computer keep track of anything on the milking side?
The computer is checking for cow health. It’s checking her weight. It’s checking how much milk is received. The computer checks for signs of mastitis, color and thickness of the milk for each cow along with somatic cell count, all as a quality check. We can watch a cow from the computer and keep track of her health. The computers assemble the data in a usable form so that we have an incredible amount of data on every single cow. The computer will tell us if a cow needs to be checked: for example if the cow isn’t eating as much food or if she’s losing weight and milking less than she did a day or two ago.
You have a feeding robot. You have a milking robot. I also saw a little robot running around where the cows are standing. What is it and what does it do?
Holmdale Farms has a cleaning and collecting robot called Lely Discovery that goes along and scrapes the floors, squeegees any manure and urine off of it and gives cows a cleaner place to walk. A cow can get a fungus between her toes similar to athlete’s foot, so the cleaner and dryer the cows’ feet, the better. When cows leave the milking robots, there is a Lely Walkway that they walk through. It is a foot bath with a fungicide in it that is added twice a week to clean their feet. We want clean, healthy cows and this helps maintain that standard.
You also have a robot that feeds the calves?
Yes, we have a robot called a Lely Calm and they feed the calves powdered milk with it. The Lely Calm does have the ability to feed whole milk collected from cows too, but we’re not using that feature yet. At three weeks old, calves get up to 14 litres of milk per day, as much milk as they’ll drink. We slowly taper down the milk level when they are 66 days old until they are weaned off of it.
As we slow down their milk intake, there is a grain feed offered all the time. With the slow transition, calves adjust very well to eating solid food. By the time calves are no longer being fed milk, they aren’t even looking for it. There’s no bawling (mooing), and they move on and do very well on solid food.
We don’t want any rapid changes for any cattle as they are creatures of habit. It doesn’t matter if they’re calves transitioning from milk to solid food or as they get older, transitioning from one pen to another, we try to do everything slowly. The barn is a very low stress environment, as low as we can make it.
Obviously, a lot goes into thinking about how to look after a cow.
That’s what we think about all day, everyday. If we can keep the cows healthy and contented, the cows will keep Holmdale Farms healthy and happy. That’s the way it works. There used to be a mindset that you fed cows to give more milk. The whole mindset has changed to feed cows, keep them healthy, and the cow will give more milk on her own. The better you treat them, the better they do.
Full video by FreshAirFarmer Andrew Campbell’s Dinner Starts here series