THE number of cows on grass could increase if a new research project involving scientists from Aarhus University in Denmark succeeds in finding a practical solution for combining automatic milking systems with grazing.
The number of cows on lush, green pasture has been in steady decline for many years. This is partly due to the introduction of automatic milking systems.
Partners in the Autograssmilk project — which is funded by the European Union — intend to reverse this development so it becomes easier for farmers to combine grazing with the use of automatic milkers. However, there are many hurdles to overcome, including management and farm design, as well as perception.
"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," Aarhus assistant professor Frank Oudshoorn said.
Grazing is a cheaper way of feeding animals, Oudshoorn explained.
One of the problems with combining automatic milking systems and grazing is that, although cows are individually milked, they often arrive in groups. This presents a number of logistical problems when certain cows have to walk from the pasture to the milking robots in the parlor.
The project researchers 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.
They also will need to study and test automatic barriers and gates in farm buildings and in the field to improve the movement of cows between the field and robot and to control grazing so that the grasslands — which 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," Oudshoorn said, pointing 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 Autograssmilk project has five main objectives:
1. Develop optimal feeding strategies that combine grazing with automatic milking systems under different production conditions in Europe;
2. Optimize the automatic milking system/grazing combination with the use of new grazing and robotic milking technologies;
3. Improve the sustainability of grazing and automatic milking system technologies;
4. Develop methods to optimize the financial viability of combining grazing with automatic milking systems, and
5. Communicate the results to end users so the knowledge can be applied and adapted to local conditions in order to improve farm efficiency.
The partners in the project include research institutes and organizations representing milk producers from six European countries and two milk producers.
Over the course of the project, Oudshoorn expects to be able to provide recommendations for improvements to the automatic milking and grazing system and, in this way, improve the farm economy.
"The knowledge that we can generate will ultimately help form a sound base for farmers on which to make their choices and will lead to more cows spending time on grass," Oudshoorn concluded.