For dairy farmers across Canada, Automated Milking Systems (AMS) represent an increasingly compelling alternative that can help reduce labour costs while increasing milking frequency. Although adoption of AMS is growing quickly on BC dairy farms, the new trend is not without its hurdles.
Learning to use the technology and transitioning cows from traditional milking parlors can be a daunting process for many producers, with lameness posing a particular problem as cows must voluntarily visit the robot milker. Even after these challenges are addressed, there remains the potential issue of public perception regarding how the new system affects animal welfare.
For Dr. Jeffrey Rushen with the University of British Columbia, understanding Best Management Practices for AMS and their effects on cow health, production and welfare is essential to ensuring both producer and consumer acceptance. And with funding through the Canada-BC Agri-Innovation Program delivered by IAF, he was able to do just that.
As part of a national research project, Dr. Rushen’s team conducted a survey of more than 500 AMS dairy farms across Canada to explore the impacts of the technology on cows and how producers managed the transition.
“The survey enabled us to determine the most common problems encountered and the most effective solutions developed, as well as identifying the housing and management practices used on AMS operations that have facilitated good cow welfare and performance,” explains Dr. Rushen.
For the most part, they found that cleaning and feeding practices remained the same on AMS farms, while the majority of producers believed that milk yield and conception rates increased and time devoted to milking-related activities decreased by 62 percent.
According to Dr. Rushen, the majority of producers (86 percent) are happy they made the switch and are already enjoying improved profits and quality of life for both themselves and their cows.
And, with the ability to now automatically capture data, farmers can also more readily identify and treat at-risk cows, further improving their overall health, productivity and welfare.
Dr. Rushen hopes their findings will pave the way for other producers considering the transition to AMS.
“Automatic milking represents the future for many dairy farmers,” he says. “We want to make sure the BC industry is aware of both the benefits and the challenges of this new technology and that they have a plan in place for making the transition.”
UBC’s research will also help inform changes to the national Dairy Code of Practice to ensure it applies to AMS operations. So far a subset of 11 recommendations to the Code were identified as a result of the survey.
More information about the project and AMS technology is available in the Journal of Dairy Science.
Funding: $64,905 provided by the Governments of Canada and British Columbia through the Canada-BC Agri-Innovation Program under Growing Forward 2, a federal-provincial-territorial initiative.(INN174)