A new study from the University of Sydney Dairy Research Foundation has found that robot-milked cows are calmer than conventionally milked animals.
In early 2015 Ashleigh Wildridge began testing anecdotal evidence that automatic milking machines (AMS) resulted in quieter dairy cows.
The PhD candidate visited five dairy farms transitioning from conventional to robotic systems in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania.
Ms Wildridge said the cows milked by robots appeared to be less fearful of humans compared to when they were milked conventionally.
“What was particularly interesting was that because the cows were quieter the farmers had to utilise a bit more effort in order to get the cows to move in a desired way because the cows were that much more relaxed around the humans which was really good to see,” she said.
She spent three days on each farm watching the farmers and recording their daily routine, while keeping her distance from the cows.
“After that I performed a ‘flight distance’ test with a specific selection of about 70 cows where I would just approach the cows in the paddock, or I had one indoor system in a barn, and recorded the distance which the cows started to move away from me,” she said.
“Then I also performed a handling test where the same selection of cows were drafted after milking, and I got the farm manager to quietly ask the cows to move through the gate one at a time so I could assess how the cows responded to close human contact in what might be a potentially stressful situation for them.
Cows associate farmers with positive things
After collecting her observations she found that the farm routine had significantly changed.
“The flight distance of the cows was significantly reduced when they were in the automatic milking systems, and the same with the handling test, the cows were much less likely to run the past the farmer when they asked them to move,” she said.
Ms Wildridge said the calmness in the cows was probably a result of various factors.
“But what I saw was that the farmers spent significantly less time interacting with the cows each day particularly around milk harvesting,” she said.
“Cows might not particularly enjoy being milked so with farmers removed from that situation, farmers are generally now only associated with mainly positive things particularly being with feed so when the cows are given a fresh break of pasture or access to the feed pad, that’s all associated with the farmers, so that’s a lot more positive for the cows.”
Farmers’ time freed up
Another key finding from the study was AMS farmers were able to spend less time managing the lactating cows enabling them to carry out other valuable on-farm duties.
The number of robotic dairy farms in Australia is slowly growing with around 40 now operating across the country.
Ms Wildridge hoped that her research would help dairy farmers who were considering adopting an AMS on an existing or even a new farm.
“It might just help give them a bit of extra information or even more peace of mind that it seems to be either benefiting, or no worse off, in these systems than existing conventional systems,” she said.
While the research did not extend to whether this calmness in cows led to higher milk production, prior studies in the area suggested it did.
“Research over many years has shown that cows that are more stressed are likely to produce less milk, so I can’t say it will have an effect on milk yield but over a longer time study it would be definitely something to look into,” she said.
Source: ABC RURAL