Irish scientists developing automated $177,000 milking machines claim to have cracked the problem of pasture-based farms – a breakthrough that could free up farm labour and allow greater production of grass-fed milk.
The prevalence of milking robots has increased on indoor farms in recent years, and now scientists at Ireland’s agricultural research centre Teagasc Moorepark have successfully used robots to milk cows out in the fields.
In indoor dairies, automated milking is relatively simple, as sheds can be set up so cows volunteer themselves to be milked to reach their feed.
In a pasture system like Ireland's or New Zealand's, where cows roam more freely, “the challenge for automated milking was getting cows to visit the milking unit,” said Padraig French, head of Teagasc Moorepark’s Animal & Grassland Research and Innovation Centre.
His team’s answer was “grass allocation,” he said.
‘GPS technology in our pastures’
In a 2012 experiment using a “Merlin” milking robot manufactured by Fullwood, 72 cows (a mixture of Friesian, Jersey Friesian cross and Norwegian Red) were placed in a 24-hectare area divided into three grazing sections. Cattle spent eight hours in each pasture in a 24-hour period.
To move on to the next pasture for more grass, animals had to pass via a robot which gauged cows’ levels and milked them if needed.
Under this system, said French, “cows decide when they come for milking, are normally milked one at a time, and the milking of the herd is therefore distributed over a 24-hour period.”
To divide fields exactly so cows would be motivated to move after eight hours, the researchers used “precise electronic equipment for allocating areas of pasture. So we’re integrating GPS technology with our pasture measurements for the allocation of where to put up the fence to give the cows the right amount of grass.”
A robot processing one cow at a time could milk seven cows an hour, with an average number of 1.8 milkings per cow each day.
Outlay is expensive, however, with French estimating a single box robot will cost farmers €100,000-€130,000 ($136,000-$177,000).
Robots’ mobility differs between countries, said French. Whereas the Irish experiment used a static robot, and Swedish technologists use a carousel model with five robots working in tandem, a Dutch machine developed by Wageningen “was actually on tracks and could be moved every day.”
Robots for 1 in 5 European cows
French expects to see an explosion in automated milking in his country on the back of his research.
“Robots are taking off in Ireland. About 10 years ago, four or five farmers invested in robots, and most of them threw them out again, because they just couldn’t make them work on an indoor system in Ireland.”
These advances in pasture-based robots will bring popularity to the machines in Ireland, he said:
“By the end of this year there’ll be 100 robots in Ireland. Farmers are willing now to take them on and integrate them into pasture-based systems.”
A paper released by Teagasc Moorepark this year estimated “up to 20 per cent of cows in Europe will be milked by AM (automated milking) systems by 2020.”
Consequences for the dairy industry
Innovation in dairy farming is needed at a time when the Irish government has pledged to increase national milk production by 50% by 2020.
With Irish farms fragmenting and skilled labour becoming harder to come by, Moorepark’s paper says the system will help by “freeing up labour and allowing the cow greater control of her activities.”
If robotic milking allows grass-based dairy farming to remain competitive, it will keep in business a type of production proponents say is more cost-effective, green, and produces milk with higher levels of healthy nutrients like conjugated linoleic acid.
“Ultimately,” said French, “it will come down to economics and farmer choice.”