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Managing dairy herds for automatic milking

The introduction of automatic milking systems in many European dairy farms has brought with it challenges for managing both farm operation and animal welfare. Following a series of studies, an EU-funded project has drawn conclusions on combining grazing with automatic milking and assessing dairy cow welfare in such systems.
Managing dairy herds for automatic milking
Pasture remains an important food source for dairy farming in many countries, and is even the object of increasing interest as agricultural priorities shift towards landscape management, biodiversity and organic farming. The AUTOMATIC MILKING project carried out studies on different systems for managing herds when combining grazing with automated milking.

Firstly, the project team studied the impact of roughage supplements and varying the distance between the pasture and the barn where milking takes place. Higher milk yield and a shorter milking interval were observed for shorter distances between pasture and barn only in an experiment where 24 hour grazing was applied.

Researchers concluded that automatic milking can indeed be combined with grazing, with milking only slightly lower during the grazing season. The effect of placing drinking water in the barn, to encourage cows to return, or out in the pasture to avoid dehydration, was found to have little impact.

Secondly, two herd traffic management systems - free and controlled - were compared. Allowing free cow traffic resulted in a lower number of milkings, decreasing further over time and with higher numbers of animals needing to be fetched as the grazing season progressed. To keep traffic running smoothly the team concluded that it was better not to try to maximise the number of lactating cows in the barn during the grazing season and to let them return voluntarily.

Additionally, the project developed a welfare assessment tool for measuring and comparing the impact of different management systems. Free cow traffic can lead to stress due to long and irregular intervals between milking, while forced traffic results in queuing and reduced feeding visits. Controlled traffic, with basic feeds permitted between milkings, was best for welfare since even low-ranked cows remained unstressed. The assessment produced a valuable annual reporting tool that permitted benchmarking between farms while including detailed raw data.

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