Cows in the digital age: Robotics for better welfare

Introduction 

Diana Teixeira is a veterinary student from Portugal. Having been exposed to the world of dairy farming from childhood, Diana’s intimate knowledge of the industry has given her a unique understanding of the ways in which technology can be used to improve farm animal welfare. Diana’s family’s farm first introduced robotics onto their farm in 2015 in collaboration with DeLaval, a company specializing in robotic dairy farming. In the initial stages of the new robotic milking system, Diana’s family selected the most suitable cows to be transitioned to the new system, the calmest cows being the most adaptable. A highly palatable concentrate was also used to encourage cows to enter the milking parlour. The lure of the concentrate combined with the cows’ natural inclination to enter the milking parlour to relieve the discomfort of full udders was enough to entice members of Diana’s herd to enter the robotic parlour. Farm staff were also close at hand to ensure a smooth transition to the new system. “There were people there all the time to see why the cows were not going to the milking system.” said Diana.

Herd Management and Animal Welfare

In terms of animal welfare, Diana said her family’s robotic milking system had a number of positive outcomes for the lives of her cows, “They aren’t stressed, they can go whenever they want to be milked. It’s a more free life.” This modern style of farming does away with many of the situations that cause cows stress on traditional farms. Since robotic milking gives cows the freedom to choose when they are milked, cows do not have to deal with the stress of being moved from rest areas to milking areas and of waiting for long periods in parlours. “They have the liberty and the autonomy to choose what they want to do.” With liberty and autonomy being the foremost concerns of animal welfare science, Diana’s words on this matter are extremely compelling.

 Despite the system’s obvious advantages for animal welfare, Diana mentioned the issue of optimizing robotic milking systems could be a challenge for many farms. “It’s difficult for a farmer to run a huge farm and then have time to collect, analyze, and optimize data.” explained Diana. Diana also suggested that farms might be able to better use data collected from robotic farming systems given support from universities but pointed out that university collaboration efforts are usually few and far between at best, “Normally this doesn’t happen, so it has to be the personnel doing this.” Diana pointed out that if more universities were willing to study the data obtained from robotic farming, the implications for animal welfare, form productivity, and animal management systems could be far reaching. Since the majority of farm workers are often not equipped with the knowledge necessary to perform the kind of in-depth analysis needed to amend milking practices and increase profits, much of robotic milking data goes unutilized. With farm animal welfare being so closely tied to system optimization and high profit margins, the ability to effectively manage data could be a deciding factor in a farm’s long-term success with robotic milking.  

Beyond welfare improvements from robotic farming, Diana feels that farms should rely on the principles outlined by the Five Freedoms to ensure “welfare is always respected.” Ensuring appropriate animal welfare standards are maintained can also serve as an effective method of preventing welfare concerns such as poor health.

In managing their farm, Diana’s family maintains three separate milking systems which include traditional mechanical milking, the newly installed robotic milking, and a so-called “infirmary system”. The latter is designed to meet the needs of cows who may be ill or require additional care. Diana says her father has a special talent for forming relationships with the members of his herd and is able to identify which cows are best suited for each system. Given the current capabilities of robotic milking technologies, Diana sees the system as a way to identify the milking system best suited to each cow but hopes the robotic systems of the future will be capable of adapting to the needs of each individual cow and to abnormal teat confirmations. 

Farm Profits

“The system changed the profits of the company a lot.” said Diana. Robotic milking allows dairy farms to incorporate three milking times into their schedule, one more than the standard two. Animals are able to be milked 24 hours per day, maximizing the total amount of milk a farm can produce. Improved profits can also translate to better welfare conditions for animals as farms able to update their equipment and provide animals with more suitable environments, “It’s a win-win situation for the farmers and for the animals. As you improve your profits, you can also improve your farm conditions and give the animals better welfare.”

Where finances are concerned, society’s improving understanding of demand for animal welfare has created a precarious situation for farmers. Many farms like Diana’s have begun to feel the economic pressures of complying with the welfare standards consumers demand. “The whole family depends on the money from this company.” explains Diana. Consumers refusing to purchase animal products produced under sub-standard animal welfare conditions has driven agricultural companies to develop farming systems designed to comply with expected levels of welfare. While improved systems represent a net-positive for the animal welfare movement and for the animals being reared within them, progress often comes with a hefty price tag that many farmers are not prepared for. As costs begin to mount, farmers become forced to dig deeper and deeper into profit margins until managing their farm becomes unsustainable. Consumers’ unwillingness to pay more for more ethically produced animal products also plays into this hardship. “Companies impose these changes on farmers, but they are not asked if they have the money to make these changes and they are not given the money for these changes either.” Diana elaborated. “You make the changes, but the price of milk doesn’t increase.” With the financial responsibility of improved animal welfare placed soley on farmers, Diana explain that many farms in her region have been forced to shut their doors. Said Diana on the issue, “Welfare costs money.” In order for improved animal welfare on farms to be sustainable, consumers, farm management companies, and governments must all be willing to collaborate and share the financial weight these changes come with.

Robotic Farming and Human-Animal Interactions

On the matter of people’s general pre-conceptions of robotic farming, Diana had the following to say, “When people think about robots they think, “Great! We’ll have a robot doing everything!” That’s not right. We have someone working 24 hours a day.” As cows must be milked every 9 to 10 hours, farm personnel must be constantly monitoring data in order to identify cows who have not been milked in that time. “You have to check that cow to see why she is not going. This is a lot of work. They could be in pain, they could just be lazy, so you need to go and check.” 

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