Irish dairy farmers are not installing automatic milking systems at the same rate European farmers are, because getting cows to voluntarily move from a field into a milking parlour is a major challenge, according to Teagasc research.

Today, there are about 10,000 AM units in places across northern Europe, and at least 25,000 worldwide, according to Teagasc and approximately 50% of all new milking parlours installed in many EU countries (except Ireland) are AM systems.

And it is envisaged that 20% of cows in the EU will be milked automatically by 2020.

While indoor feeding systems have adapted well to AM but cow-grazing systems have not, Teagasc says and estimates that there are approximately 500 automated milking set up in Ireland (north and south).

According to Teagasc, it is suggested here that AM could play a similarly positive and significant role in Irish dairying if one fundamental difference in the operation of the robot, between other EU countries and Ireland, was addressed – the cow-feeding system.

While indoor feeding systems (common in other EU countries) have been well adapted to AM, cow-grazing systems have not, it says.

According to Teagasc, milk production in Ireland is grass-based and up to 90% of the cow’s diet during lactation is in the form of grazed grass.

Thus, in order for automatic milking to become a realistic alternative to conventional, manual milking in Irish grass-based systems, the practical challenges of integrating AM and grazing must be researched, it says.

Integration of AM in a grass-based system

To achieve voluntary movement of cows from a paddock to the AM system is a challenge, it says.

A three-way grazing management system is now in place at Moorepark. This promotes the voluntary movement of the cow to the milking unit at appropriate intervals, Teagasc says.

The farm is divided into three grazing sections, and cows graze defined areas of each of the three grazing sections during each 24 hour period.

Cows move between the grazing sections in the trained knowledge that they will be rewarded with fresh grass in a new paddock. As they move between sections, the cows are diverted through the milking yard. This grazing system was operated at the Moorepark farm during 2014, it says.

A Fullwood Merlin AM system was used to milk a herd of 70 cows (average calving date was February 24). Cows were outdoors grazing on a part-time basis from calving until February 27, after which cows were grazing full time, it says.

According to Teagasc, cows received 400kg concentrates during the year. Milk volume and milk solids yield was 4,400kg and 380kg/cow, respectively it says, during the complete lactation.

These yields were lower than average due to the presence of Jersey cows in the herd and experimental milking frequency (MF) treatments being applied to the cows, it says.

An average MF of 1.8 milkings/cow/day was achieved during the complete lactation, it found.

The role of AM

From the few studies available, Teagasc says it would be expected that AM could have a positive impact on both the work life and social life of the farmer and on the overall sustainability of the family farming system.

While such studies have not been conducted in exclusively grass-based systems of milk production, it is likely that a similar response would be obtained, it says.

One significant difference is the greater daily labour required for grassland and grazing management; however, this would not exceed the overall reduction in labour requirement associated with AM (O’Brien et al., 2015), it says.

Teagasc says the decision to invest in AM requires prior investigation into system management, procedures, performance, and other skill sets required (e.g., grassland management and interpretation of data output).

Farmers need to be in a position to make well-informed decisions, understand the technology, and have realistic expectations of the technology.

AM has been shown to have a positive impact on work – social life balance on farms operating partial and complete confinement systems, it says.

Integration of AM into pasture-based systems is challenging, but it has been achieved successfully. Thus, it is suggested that a similar potential role for AM exists within a grass-based system of milk production, it says.

Furthermore, it may represent a solution to farm fragmentation, Teagasc says.

The research was carried out by Bernie O’Brien, Cathriona Foley and John Shortall, Teagasc and was first published in the summer edition of TResearch.