Smart feeding can lead to increased milk in robotic herds

Posted on July 19, 2023 in Dairy Performance
By Jenn Coyne, Progressive Dairy

Feeding a robotic milking herd may seem like a balancing act between what is fed at the bunk and in the box.  Industry observations indicate consistency between both is the true driver of increased energy-corrected milk and components.

The year is 2015, and the philosophy for feeding a robotic milking herd is to feed limited energy at the bunks so the cows go to the robots for the remainder of their nutrient requirements; more energy available in the robot means more visits and ultimately more milk.

Yet, reality has suggested otherwise.

“Failure is a great teacher,” Zach Sawall said.  “When we looked at behavior and limitations, there always seemed to be a cap on milk production.  We learned that more dry matter intake at the bunk and production goes up. More starch and energy at the bunk, energy goes up.  When fed more pellets, milk went down.  Those are all the exact opposite of what we were thinking initially.”

Zach Sawall, Ph.D., and Noah Litherland, Ph.D., both of Vita Plus, presented, “Practical approaches to feeding for increased energy-corrected milk in robotic milking herds” during the Vita Plus Midwest Dairy Conference on June 14.

Sawall focused his portion of the talk on philosophy and application, while Litherland provided examples from herds he works with as well as supporting industry research.

Feed consistently between the bunks and robots

“We now know consistency fed at the bunks and in the robots drives components and profitability,” Sawall said.  “How do we maximize energy-corrected milk?  We want amino acids delivered to the cow consistently no matter where she’s at.  Doing so maintains production, keeps the rumen bugs happy and stabilizes overall rumen health.”

The example Sawall provided was transitioning from the mindset of wanting to provide 60 pounds dry matter intake (DMI) total, so 58 pounds at the bunk and 2 pounds at the robot, to a concentration per 100 pounds of milk.  Then, making sure the feedbunk can support all 100 pounds.

“We want her to get her production from the bunk so that she doesn’t have to rely on getting anything from that robot,” Sawall said.  “This has really shown benefits on our 2-year-olds.  If that cow is a little nervous or jumpy … she isn’t getting what she’s expected to get and we’re limiting her production.”

When thinking about feeding at a concentration per 100 pounds, how many pounds do the cows receive at the robots and in what form?  Sawall suggested using a feed table (or pounds per visit in a guided-flow system).
If the scenario is feeding 6 pounds of pellet per 100 pounds, a feed table will include 50 pounds at 3 pounds, 100 pounds at 6 pounds and 200 pounds at 12 pounds.

“Now, the whole herd gets the same concentration no matter how much they’re milking,” Sawall said.  “The benefit is that if we pull out feed from the robot, we’re putting that exact amount in the bunk.  This really allows us to balance the bunk more precisely.”

Sawall has gone away from feeding cows in the robots based on milking speed and predicted milk yield.  Rather, he uses the feed tables and feeds the cows throughout the duration of milking, knowing a cow can consume about two-thirds pound of pellet per minute or one-third pound of grain mix per minute.

“I’ve dropped all that she’s going to eat within the first two minutes of her being in the box,” Sawall said.  “This allows the unit to get attached and allows her the full duration to eat the feed we’re feeding her without getting shorted.”

This feeding strategy can be accomplished by keeping cow behavior in mind, being mindful of high cow activity times in the barn.  Sawall encouraged producers to limit wash cycles, bedding the stalls, fetching cows and other chores to late morning and early afternoon when the herd is naturally at a lower activity level.

Cow behavior influences potential for energy-corrected milk

Litherland furthered the conversation on cow behavior and how barn setup, transitions and stressful situations may all influence energy-corrected milk.

“The key is keeping the herd as socially stable as possible, especially those fresh cows,” Litherland said.

Despite mitigating health issues in low-stress environments, research suggests there may be more to understand, particularly the role inflammation plays.

Litherland spoke of research conducted by Lance Baumgard at Iowa State University that evaluated immune stimulation which resulted in reduced DMI.

“Think about what’s happening upstream that might reduce issues like mycotoxins, mastitis and metritis,” Litherland said.  “We can’t have a pile of inflammation in our fresh cows, so we have to get the environment right to reduce that inflammation.”

Risk factors include pen moves, the time at dry-off, vaccinations and social interactions, and inflammation has been shown to carry throughout the lactation period so that it may be present from multiple instances at the time of calving.

From a feeding perspective, biogenic amines are impactful in developing inflammation.  Litherland said biogenic amines, such as histamine, tyramine, and putrescine, come in the form of bad haylage or high starch or proteins in the diet, and will lead to abdominal cramping, swelling and hypertension.

“When we feed high levels of pellets in starch, we increase the risk for biogenic amines in the rumen,” Litherland said.  “Fresh cows are at risk because their guts are more permeable.”

Biogenic amines also can  be associated with overweight cattle, slug feeding, rumen-degradable protein in the diet and potentially water quality.

Additional things that impact energy-corrected milk include personnel disruptions – such as robot maintenance and herd health checks – temperature in the barn, seasonal rhythms, hoof health and physiological maturity of heifers, among many others.

“It all adds up,” Litherland said.  “What we can do is focus on rumen and lower gut health, minimize feed through the robot and formulate the pellet to match the TMR composition.  We know feeding cows at the bunk drives components and profitability.”

Click here to download Sawall and Litherland’s PowerPoint presentation from the Vita Plus Midwest Dairy Conference.

Category: Dairy Performance
Feed quality and nutrition
Milk production and components