Project Team: Dr Debbie McConnell, Dr Stephanie Buijs, John Archer and Alan Gordon

Background  

The overall objective of this research project is to improve the efficiency of N.I. dairy farms by providing key performance indicators and new information to optimise management of robotic milking systems. 

Increasing herd sizes and a reduction in the agricultural workforce has led to increasing pressure on labour on UK dairy farms.  During 2005 and 2014, average labour hours per cow fell by 22% on UK dairy farms to 39 hours per annum (Eurostat, 2016). Creating a labour efficient working environment is essential to building sustainable farm businesses and ensuring an attractive industry for new entrants. Robotic milking technology is attracting increased interest within the N.I. dairy sector, in part driven by the perceived labour replacement value this technology offers. Industry estimates indicate that there are now over 500 robotic milking machines present in N.I., suggesting approximately 10% of the national herd is currently milked by robotic technology (Robot manufacturers, personal communication, 2018). In line with other European countries (e.g. Denmark, Netherlands, UK), installation of robotic equipment is expected to continue to increase in coming years. 

Despite the recent uptake of robotic milking systems within N.I., little independent information is currently available on the management of these systems. Unlike standard milking machine replacements, conversion to robotics requires: a paradigm shift in both cow behaviour and farmer management, the identification and use of new metrics and practices to aid cow management, and advancements in on-farm and supporting industry skill sets. Failure to fully achieve this marked change of practice could result in sub-optimal physical and economic performance of robotic milking systems. 

 

Project

The project, funded by DAERA and AgriSearch will include a number of research trials, undertaken at AFBI Hillsborough to optimise the efficiency of housed robotic systems and investigate how grazing and robotic could integrate on N.I. farms.  

The project also seeks to capture information on the management and performance of robotic milking systems on commercial farms. To achieve this, cow and robot performance data will be collected from 25 dairy farms in NI on a monthly basis over a period of two years. From this dataset, the key metrics influencing system efficiency and performance will be identified for each farm. After the first year, farms may be asked to alter management practices to test their effect on overall system performance. 

Farmers have been asked to participate in discussion group meetings twice a year (5 in total) were results of the on-farm and parallel studies at AFBI, Hillsborough will be discussed. Future research requirements for robotic milking will also be discussed.  

 

Objectives

The overall objective of this research proposal is to improve the efficiency of N.I. dairy farms by providing key performance indicators and new information to optimise management of robotic milking systems as part of systems of low environmental footprints. 

 With increasing pressure on dairy farms to maximise efficiency and lower inputs in recent years, novel approaches to managing and milking dairy cows have been sought. Robotic milking technology, whereby a cow voluntary visits an automated milking machine at any given time throughout a 24-hour period without need for human intervention, is becoming increasingly popular, although It is currently estimated that 10% of the N.I. dairy herd is milked with this technology. Robotic technology is thought to provide a number of advantages: reduction in labour requirements (up to 18%), increased milk production (up to 12%) and improved cow welfare as cows choose when to be milked.

Following a three-fold increase in robotic milking worldwide in the last half decade, adoption of this technology is anticipated to continue to rise within N.I. Despite this changing industry, knowledge to support farmers adopting robotic milking in N.I. is currently limited and often solely provided by commercial companies selling this equipment. This absence of information is believed to be contributing to sub-optimal performance of this technology on some farms.  

 Independent information is needed to assist farmers in adapting to robotic milking which itself requires a paradigm shift in both cow behaviour and farmer management techniques. This project will aid farmers in: 

  1. improving farm profitability and reducing the environmental footprint of systems incorporating robotics –  
  • by developing strategies to integrate grazing and robotic systems which will lower feed costs 
  • by identifying key performance targets for commercial business which will be based on optimising farm performance and achieving good return on investment 
  • by creating new knowledge on how to encourage increased milking frequency in dairy cows which in turn will increase milk production and farm sales 
  1. increasing efficiency of resource use -  
  • by developing new strategies to minimise the requirement for bought in concentrates and in return reduce farm nutrient balances 
  • by identifying key metrics and performance indicators, creating more labour efficient management practices on-farm 
  1. increasing on-farm expertise -
  • by supporting technological advancement and automation in the dairy industry  
  • by increasing the digital skills base both on-farm and in the wider supporting industry.