Automated machines bring numerous benefits to dairy research (Part Two)

by | Jun 2, 2021

Automation in agriculture has revolutionized some of the work on farms, including North Carolina’s 18 research stations. Automated features on equipment can improve accuracy and consistency, from tractors in fields to operations in barns. There’s also a benefit in the aspect of labor because automation can save lots of man hours and essentially do more with less human labor.

These are all important benefits in a world where fewer people are farming but the population continues to grow. So automation has become an important part of the state’s research stations, which aim to help farmers find better, more productive ways to increase food and fiber production.

A previous article (Part One) highlighted how the stations keep moving agriculture into the future with GPS-guided tractors and automated attachments. Automation is also making a difference when it comes to milking cows and feeding calves. The automation in milking and feeding barns helps create better data for research, make work a bit more manageable and improve the way livestock health is monitored.

Part Two: Robotic feeder and automated monitoring in Salisbury
At the Piedmont Research Station in Salisbury, a robotic calf feeder has automated feeding of young dairy cows. As a calf stands at one of the automatic feeder’s nipples, it can read an RFID tag on the calf and adjust the amount of milk it dispenses. The feeder also has a scale in the ground to weigh each calf.

Calves can go to the feeder any time of day, and because the feeder knows which cow is at which nipple the feeder is able to slowly ween each calf off of milk as it reaches around 70 days old. Traditionally, a person would have to keep up with the age of each calf and manually track how much milk to give each calf that day.

Before the feeder was installed, it took one worker six to seven hours a day to feed all of the young calves in the herd. Now, it takes only one hour in the morning and one hour in the evening to do maintenance and make any changes to the feeder.

“It’s easily saving up to five hours of manpower a day,” explained Brad Graham, the station’s interim superintendent. “Before the robotic feeder, everything was down on paper, and every cow got the amount of milk it was supposed to get in just one feeding each day. And research trials were depending on a weight taken once a week, but now we’re getting weight every time a calf feeds.”

The calves’ activity can be monitored in the calf pen.

Although the calves are each limited in the total amount of milk they can drink each day, since they can feed at any time of day, they now average about 80 pounds heavier when they get to 70 days old. Graham said they also never feel over-full, so they’re more active too.

In the milking barn, an automatic monitoring system has been upgraded to track each cow’s activity, such as steps, resting time and eating time. The Afimilk system, or “affy” for short, also tracks how much milk each cow produces each day, plus the content of that milk, such as protein and conductivity (salt content). All of those elements can help detect any health issues early.

“The ‘affy’ system will help us know that a cow is not feeling good a day or two before you could even tell by looking at it,” Graham said. “If you can go ahead and treat a cow two days early you’re probably not going to lose that cow. Just for example, their digestive systems are so complex, if they ever stop working right, it can take a lot to get them going right again. So the earlier you can detect a problem, the better.”

The system can also identify each cow that is being milked, and if there’s any issue with the milk because of the cow’s health, the system will show an alarm on the monitoring screen. Of course, just like the robotic calf feeder, another benefit of the Afimilk system is cutting down on the labor and collecting lots of information automatically.

“No one has to go in with a pen or pencil anymore, but they still get lots of data with the technology. That’s a ton of data points for research project leaders,” Graham said. “You really can’t put a price tag on all the data points we’re getting multiple times a day without someone taking those measurements. And the calf health is better, and we never know how it may help with research.”

Graham said the technology allows researchers to track the cows from birth into a few years of producing milk. So the information gathered over those years could help researchers as they look at all sort of factors to improve cow health, milk production and farmer profits.