Feed management in robotic milking herds

Wisconsin State Farmer

Leesport, Pa. — Feed management is one of the most important factors in the successful operation of robotic milking dairy farms.

Since feed at the robotic milker is the primary motivating factor to bring cows to the robot, a proper balance of feed at the robot and at the feed bunk is important to ensure milk production and cow flow through the robotic milker, Dr. Mathew Haan, PennState Extension Dairy Team, told listeners during January's technology webinar on robotic milkers and feed management.

During a recent Penn State study, Haan evaluated economic, environmental and production data from seven dairy farms using robotic milking systems in an effort to determine how the PMR and robot feed formulation affected the milkings per cow per day and milk production

The robots used on the study farms were Lely A4s and AMS Galaxys. The size of the farms ranged from 227 lactating cows to 60 cows, with an average of 52 cows per milking stalls. Production averaged 79 pounds per cow per day with an average of 179 days in milk.

All of the study barns used a free flow system. The freestall facilities averaged nearly two feet of feed bunk space per cow. Voluntary milkings per day averaged 2.8 times, refusals averaged 1.3, failed milkings averaged 5.6, while box time per visit averaged 7 minutes 12 seconds and free time on the robots averaged 17.5 percent (extra capacity).

Feed delivery averaged around four times a day, with feed being pushed up, on average, seven times a day.

Haan's analysis showed dry matter intake right around 42 pounds/cow/day with calculated feed costs at the bunk of $3.62-$4.09. His PMR analysis showed, on average, DM 50.2 %, CP 14.7%DM, NDF 37.4%DM, ADF 24%DM and starch 21%DM.

Dr. Mathew Haan

 Quality counts

Whether a farm was feeding pellets or meal at the robot was not as important as whether the cows were enjoying what they ate. "The quality and consistency of the feed at the robot is really crucial to any well-managed herd," Haan emphasized. "If you have inconsistent or unpalatable feed at the robot, the cows aren't going to come to visit. This is really one of the key areas to manage."

Typically, farms using robots set up a series of feed tables. For early lactation (1-45 DIM), a farm might start with 2-2.5 pounds of feed at the robot per cow per day, stepping the amount up gradually toward mid-lactation (say 45 pounds of milk/cow/day). At that point, the feed table keying off production takes over, stepping up feed to, perhaps, 17 pounds for a cow giving 120 pounds of milk. Around late lactation, the table switches again and feed amounts begin stepping down toward dry off.

Analysis of the robot feeds varied because each farm was matching it with their PMR feed at the bunk, Haan noted. On average, he figured 89 % DM, CP 22.7% DM, NDF 21%MD, ADF 10.5%DM and starch 33%DM. 

The study cows consumed, on average, just over 10 pounds of robot feed a day or 0.13 pounds of feed/lbs of milk for a calculated cost averaging $343 per ton of feed .

Noting the data set was limited to two farms, Haan figured total cost of feed at $5.65 and $5.88 per cow per day. Forage quality and feed quality made a big difference in the individual farm's ability to produce milk and keep the costs down, he noted.

Calculating income and feed cost with a milk price of $17, Haan figured the farms'  income over feed cost (IOFC) at $8.63/cow/day and $6.65, respectively. "At the end of the day, after the farms have paid the feed bill, that's the amount of money they had left to pay the rest of their bills," he explained.

As reference, Penn State's cash flow analysis of 105 dairy farms in 2015 showed an average IOFC breakeven point of $7.89. "So the average of those 105 farms, which included just a couple of robotic milking farms, would put robotic milking farms in the ballpark," he noted.

Valuable tools

Penn State has several useful dairy management tools available. They include the Penn State Farm Margin Monitor, an online tool that uses information from the farm's schedule F tax form and basic cow and cropping information. It will spit out cost of production and breakeven feed costs.

Cash Flow Planning Tool is an Excel-based program that aids dairy producers in identifying strengths and weaknesses, summarizing and benchmarking cost of production and identifying production opportunities for their dairy.

Haan's research into robotic milking farms is ongoing. He welcomes input on the subject and can be contacted at mmh29@psu.edu.