Cow Comfort at teh New KBS Dairy
On July 7, the milking herd of 95 Holstein cows at MSU’s Kellogg Biological Station moved into a new free stall barn, complete with two robotic milking systems to begin their new careers as self-milked cows. All cows were moved on the same day.
In order to gauge from the cows’ perspective about whether the new barn and robotic milkers agreed with them, we collected data on how well they adapted to being milked by the robots, what impact the new barn and milking systems had on hoof health and lameness in the herd, and how the new barn and free stall water bed mattresses affected how the cows spent each day.
Why is it important that the cows adapt to being milked by the robots? It is well known that stress during milking can inhibit milk let-down, which can reduce milk yield and could lead to health problems for the cow. In theory, there are several reasons a robotic milker could provide a low stress milking environment compared with a conventional milking parlor. A cow can choose when she wants to be milked, the cow doesn’t spend time waiting in a holding pen outside the parlor, there are no humans present, and the cow receives a grain reward while she is milked.
Adaptation to Robots
During their first robotic milking (day 0), the cows vocalized, eliminated, stepped and kicked frequently, suggesting that they did not initially like being in the robotic milker.
However, in less than 24 hr, stepping and kicking prior to teat attachment dropped and vocalization and elimination nearly disappeared. In both cases, the rapid reduction in stress-related behaviors could be attributed to the cows becoming more comfortable in the milker or because they began to focus on eating grain in the robot’s feeder.
Importantly, milk yield, which had dropped to an average of 35 lb/cow in the first 24 hr in the new barn, rebounded to nearly 70lb/cow per day. Reduced initial milk yield was likely due to cows not letting down, particularly during their first milking by the robots. During the first milking, the robot uses lasers to scan the udder and teats to learn the cow’s conformation. This process can take several minutes, which caused the first robotic milking to be longer than later milkings, a fact which may have contributed to the cow’s discomfort during her first milking by the robot.
Another indication that cows adapted quickly to the robotic milkers is the number of cows that milk themselves voluntarily versus the number that need to be fetched and milked. Within a week of introducing the cows to the robotic milkers, over 80% of the herd was milking voluntarily. After 2 wk, over 90% was milking voluntarily and after two months over 97% of the herd was milking voluntarily. In terms of labor, this means only 2-3 cows of the 95 in the herd must be fetched every 12 hr to be milked while the remainder of the herd goes through the robotic milkers voluntarily over twice a day.
Changes in Locomotion
Because automatic milking systems rely on cows voluntarily visiting the milking robots and lame cows are less active, lame cows can require more fetching by stock persons and milk less frequently than non-lame cows.
The end result is that lameness might cause greater economic losses in a robotic system than in a parlor system. We hypothesized that locomotion scores and hoof health would improve when cows moved to the new barn, due to improvements in cow comfort including: 1) potentially less time standing, especially during milking; 2) larger stalls with water beds; and, 3) level floors.
Hooves were examined in May and August by a hoof trimmer and the number and types of problems were recorded. Overall, the number of hoof problems observed increased during the study with the most prevalent problem in both barns being hairy heel warts (digital papillomatosis). Locomotion scoring was performed weekly by two trained observers using a numerical 1-5 rating system (1= not lame, 5 = severely lame).
In the old barn, the average locomotion score of the herd was 2.1 with only a few cows scoring 4 or 5. After moving to the new barn, the average locomotion score of the herd increased to about 3.0 by mid August and more cows were observed with scores of 3 or 4 (see Figure 1). Before moving to the new barn, 74.1% of the herd was not lame (with locomotion scores of 1-2) and 25.9% of the herd was lame (with locomotion scores of 3.5). However, at the end of the study 78.3% of the herd was lame. Contrary to our expectations, hoof health problems and locomotion scores increased in the new barn. These problems may resolve as the new flooring becomes smoothed by wear and the cows transition to pasture.
We had expected that cows would stand and perch more in the stalls in the old barn because the floor was quite sloped (4.0%) and the stalls were smaller and contained rubber mattresses bedded with straw rather than water beds and shavings as in the new barn. And in fact, we did see cows perching 2.5 times as often in the old barn than in the new barn. Unexpectedly, however; cows spent more time lying in stalls in the old barn and more time standing in the alleys and stalls in the new barn.
There are several possible explanations for this change in lying behavior, but the most likely is that our observations of cow behavior in the new barn were made 3 wk after the move, and it is possible that the cows were still adjusting to the new water beds, social groups, and routine of the new barn. However, ambient environmental temperature also could have been a contributing factor as the temperatures were in the mid-90s F. during observations in the old barn and in the mid-80s F. during observations in the new barn.
In summary, cows adapted quickly to changes in the milking system itself, but appear to be adapting more slowly to changes between the old and new barns. We intend to continue observing the KBS herd to see how long changes in behavior and hoof health and gait persist and what impact pasturing the cows will have on these factors and on the percent of animals voluntarily milking.
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