SMART FARMING: Integrated, automated system holds a key

Management, production and consumer demands place a heavy weight on producers’ shoulders. Automation may help relieve some of the burden.

By Dave Natzke

Economics and lifestyle issues for dairy producers, as well as consumer-driven demands regarding food quality, safety and traceability, will continue to push dairying toward increased automation, according to leaders of one of the largest dairy technology companies in the world.

DeLaval, manufacturers of milking equipment – including robotic milkers – hosted journalists from throughout the world at a “Smart Farming” seminar at its headquarters near Stockholm, Sweden, in early December.

With dairy’s economic future defined by scale and efficiency, “dairy farming, as a lifestyle, is fading away,” said Stefan Bergstrand, dairy training manager. “There’s a new generation of dairy farmers, worldwide, who are investing in larger farms. To manage those larger farms, labor and feed costs are important issues. Dairy management is about managing costs.”

“Larger farms and higher yields are increasing demands on professional management and labor,” said DeLaval’s European regional president Jan Ove Nilsson. “There are also increasing demands placed on animal health and welfare, milk quality and food safety, and traceability. That will require more reliable herd monitoring to enable proactive decision-making and action.”

On the farm, several factors drive automation advances: 1) a desire to make jobs easier and improve lifestyle; and 2) labor issues, including availability and cost.

According to Benoit Passard, DeLaval’s vice president of marketing and communication, three keys to automation are:

1) capturing information

2) processing information, leading to aided decision-making tools

3) robotization or mechanization of the process (either in part or completely).


Robotic carousels

DeLaval officials said they were testing a prototype robotic milker for carousel milking parlors, but would not estimate a possible introduction date. The system may be more suitable for managers of larger U.S. herds, who  have been slow to embrace “box” robotic milkers able to handle a maximum of 60-70 cows per unit.

Andrew Turner, DeLaval vice president of milking systems, said carousel applications would address both group and voluntary traffic patterns, with no labor limitations on cow traffic, allowing 24-hour/7-day use of milking equipment, and increasing milk harvested per hour. Dairy managers could focus on cow management, instead of milking management, he said.

Challenges include complete and perfect teat preparation, without compromising parlor throughput. The system will require “intelligent rotary platform movement.” 


Beyond robots

However, the company’s officials stressed automation advancements will go beyond milking robots, to feeding, herd health and reproduction management – both at the herd and individual cow level.

“Because feed costs make up such a large portion of overall costs, improving the efficiency of feeding by 10% can improve profits by 50%,” said Bergstrand. But, he continued, there’s frequently a disconnect between feed efficiency and cow nutrition formulated on paper and the feed that actually makes it to the front of the cow. Variation is one of the challenges to efficient feeding.

“Cows require consistency, accuracy and frequent feeding,” he said. “Sometimes that’s inconvenient with labor schedules.”

Bergstrand predicted automation will help producers by allowing more frequent feeding, as well as on-the-go feed analysis for dry matter, nutrient content and palatability. Sensors will help monitor fermentation and storage stability. It will allow producers to continuously adjust feed mixtures based on changing nutrient needs, pH levels or heat stress, for example.

Improved and integrated cow sensors will lead to more wireless, user-friendly integrated systems, allowing massive data collection and real-time, remote analysis by management team members, according to DeLaval’s Fenando Mazeris. That information will help manage herd health, reproduction and milk quality – identifying risk factors and setting off alarms before clinical signs appear.

In the milking parlor, on-farm milk analysis will include detection of antibiotics and other foreign materials, and count and identify bacteria, before they get into the food chain.

Rest assured, dairy producers will still be needed. Collecting data still requires analysis and interpretation, then making herd and business decisions based on that information.   

“Data is dead, unless you give it life and depth,” said Turner. “Our vision is an on-farm integrated system where we can apply even further automation. We know that the farmer needs to boost profit, milk yield and quality, and reduce feed and labor costs. Our goal is to contribute to the peace of mind for future generations of dairy farmers.”