Increased milk frequency and greater precision offered by robotic milking has many udder-health benefits, providing herd management and housing are also adapted to suit the system switch.
TEXT RHIAN PRICE
Achieving good udder health when switching from conventional to robotic milking requires a change in management, as well as mindset. So says Lely Atlantic’s vet Mike Steele, a vet who has worked with many herds that have successfully moved to automatic milking systems and are now seeing somatic cell counts below 150,000 cells/ml.
“A pre-installation assessment, conducted by Lely’s farm management support team, will offer advice on the best liners, dairy chemicals, and milking settings to select, based on herd-level teat scores and pre-existing levels of mastitis infection,” he explains. “But slurry management and building design also have important roles to play.” Advance Milking’s Tom Greenham says liner choice is one of the most important factors to consider when switching to robot milking to maintain udder health, but decisions should be based on each herd’s milking priorities.
“If a herd has a reasonable amount of idle time on robots and isn’t struggling to achieve enough cow visits, producers may opt for silicone-based liners,” he explains.
“Rubber liners will improve milking speed, but silicone liners offer a gentler milking and reduce the compressive load on cow teats, which reduces teat-end hyperkeratosis.”
He says the most important factor when selecting liners is that they fit the range of teat sizes in the herd. “One thing that can be a game-changer in udder health is having a robot designated for heifers. “If a third of the herd comprises heifers, producers can afford to run a heifer group and choose a liner that fits smaller teats,” he explains.
“Running a separate heifer group can also prevent heifers from being bullied by older cows, which can impact the number of robot visits, milking and udder health,” he adds.
Building layout is also key because bottlenecks can interfere with the number of robot visits. “If the layout doesn’t allow cows to move freely around the building, producers may need to compensate by reducing stocking rates,” says Mr Greenham.
Slurry management, particularly with cows constantly housed, also needs careful consideration. “There is never a time when sheds are empty, unlike on units where herds are milked through a conventional parlour. Blade scrapers are notorious for creating a big wave of slurry, which can cause dirty feet and legs,” he says. “And floodwash systems can contaminate udders.
“So the best system for slurry removal is a robotic vacuum. These easily justify investment and pay for themselves because both the cows and their housing environment are so much cleaner,” adds Mr Greenham. Mr Steele says producers may need to think about cleaning beds and passageways more often when switching to robotic milking to achieve good levels of cleanliness, and reduce the potential mastitis-infection pressure.
“Unlike herds milked through a conventional parlour, cows are not always going to come out of the robot to clean beds and passageways, and fresh feed,” he adds. Two key performance indicators to monitor for udder health include milk access and refusals. The former is the time between each cow’s milkings. “As the interval becomes longer, mastitis rates can rise. The aim is for cows to visit the robot frequently and the time between visits should not exceed 14 hours.”
As for the latter, the target is to have more refusals than visits – between two and four each day.
A significant advantage of using robotic milking is that it offers consistency, which can be a huge win for udder health, according to Mr Steele.
“A robot is not going to skip steps, such as stripping or wiping teats, on a Sunday morning after a bad Saturday night,” he adds.
Staffordshire-based producer Nick Summerfield milks 200 cows, near Newcastle-under-Lyme, and believes the extra milkings, and enhanced pre-milking and takeoff settings have helped improve udder health since installing four Lely Astronaut A5 robots on his unit two and half years ago.
“When we milked the herd through our conventional 32:32 herringbone parlour, we struggled to achieve cell counts below 200,000 cells/ml, despite putting a lot of effort into mastitis management,” he explains, adding that mastitis rates averaged 30 cases per 100 cows. Teat-end damage, particularly on the fore udders, was also a problem.
Customised take-off: setting allow cups to be removed from
individual quarters at different times
Today mastitis cases are down to just 10 per 100 cows, and herd average yield is 12,000 litres – up 20% since installing the robots in 2020 – with 3.80% butterfat and 3.25% protein, and a SCC of 140,000 cells/ml. Cows are averaging 3.2 visits to the robot each day.
The Summerfields were early adopters of selective dry-cow therapy. But Nick says that incomplete records meant that some cows that should have received antibiotics at drying off were missed.
Improved data delivered through Lely’s Horizon app means he can now monitor raised cell counts in individual quarters throughout lactation, and target treatment more precisely. This has given him the confidence to treat just 5% of the herd with antibiotics at drying off, compared to 20% previously.
Heifers are milked through a separate robot using smaller rubber liners, which give a better fit on their shorter rear teats. “And we changed from an off-the-shelf iodine teat dip to a high-spec disinfectant product, with emollients to condition the skin,” adds Nick.
He says the real advantage of milking with robots is the pre-treatment Optimiser settings, which evaluate individual-cow milk flow at the start of lactation and will tailor brush settings accordingly, giving cows with poor milk let down more stimulation.
And customised take-off settings allow cups to be removed from individual quarters at different times to prevent over-milking.
“It was a real eye-opener moving to the robot,” he adds. “We thought cows were milking evenly on four quarters, but some were actually a lot slower on one quarter. Automation has resulted in higher yields, better teat condition, and a reduction in udder health problems.”