The number of cows on grass is set to rise if a new research project involving scientists from Aarhus University succeeds in finding a practical solution for combining automatic milking systems with grazing.
The number of cows on lush green pasture has for many years been in steady decline. This is not least due to the introduction of automatic milking systems, because even though they have eased the workload for farmers, they have also limited cows’ access to exercise, fresh fodder, daylight and a natural resting behaviour.
The partners in the Autograssmilk project – which has been funded by the EU to the tune of 23 million Danish kroner – intend to reverse this development so that it becomes easier for farmers to combine grazing with the use of automatic milking robots. But it is a road that has many hurdles, not in the least management and farm design. There is also a third important factor that influences the situation.
- One of the largest challenges is the widely held belief by industry and advisers that once you have installed milking robots it is not possible for cows to be on grass. The problem is that, generally, there is very little expertise in this area, so we hope that the project can help to gather knowledge and develop methods that will make it possible – and economically viable – to combine grazing with automatic milking, says Frank Oudshoorn, assistant professor at Aarhus University.
He points out that being deprived of grazing can have serious consequences for the cows.
- Cows get exercise when they are grazing in the field and walking to and from the milking parlour. This reduces problems with hooves and legs, benefits their general health and results in a lower mortality rate. Grazing is also a cheaper way of feeding the animals, explains Frank Oudshoorn.
Automatic gates to control the traffic
One of the problems with combining automatic milking systems with grazing is that although cows are individually milked they often arrive in groups. This gives a number of logistical problems when certain cows have to walk from the pasture to the milking robots in the parlour.
The scientists in the project therefore face the task of developing new techniques and sensors that can monitor the forage input in the field and the length of time cows spend there so that they can adjust the amount and timing of the ration fed to the cows when they are indoors. Automatic barriers and gates in the farm buildings and in the field will also need to be studied and tested to improve the movement of cows between field and robot and to control grazing so that the grasslands that are often of limited size are evenly grazed.
- We will among other things be looking at a combination of pasture grazing with an automatic milking carrousel in Sweden where the cows can be milked in groups or individually, explains Frank Oudshoorn and points out that this could be a solution for dairy farmers with more than 200 cows who would like to combine grazing and automatic milking.
The partners in the project include research institutes and organisations representing milk producers from six European countries, and two milk producers.