Sunday, July 14, 2024
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Beck’s farm to introduce voluntary milking system

The system will be the first of its kind to be in the area

Camilla Faragalli
Clarendon Dec. 14, 2023
At the Beck Family Farm, free-stall cows eat, drink and move about at will. Soon, the 145 inhabitants of the large dairy farm will have a level of freedom unprecedented by local bovine; a choice over when they are to be milked.
The Clarendon farm is installing a voluntary milking system, often referred to as a “robotic” milking system, in the spring of 2024.
Kristine Amyotte, who co-owns the farm along with her husband Robbie Beck, said the couple is excited to implement the new system.
“Like any business, we look at what our goals are going to be for the future management, we look at the replacement cost, we look at the changes that need to be made overall,” she said, “and currently we’re in a position where we have to do some sort of infrastructural update.”
She explained that the capital cost of implementing the robots is less than updating the entire parlour system, which would involve expanding the footprint of the building.
“It’s going to be a retrofit. We don’t need to build a new barn or new animal housing,” she said.
Amyotte said that in addition, while the farm’s maintenance costs will be higher with the implementation of the new system, there will be fewer people looking after the same amount of cows, which are currently milked twice daily in a process that takes two hours each time.
“When we put all those components together, for us it made sense to go with a robotic system,” she said, “We think at the end of the day it’ll be a gain for us.”
How a voluntary milking
system works
The robot that will be taking over milking duties at the Beck Family Farm is officially named the Lely Astronaut A5.
Amyotte and Beck are already in possession of three of them, and are planning on starting the renovations to accommodate their implementation in January.
“If everything rolls exactly the way we are hoping, by the end of February, early March, the technicians will come and put the robots together,” Amyotte said.
“Then there’s a training process for the cows,” she added.
The new system will involve installing three milking stations. Each will allow one cow at a time to enter, when she is ready to be milked. A transmitter on each cow’s collar identifies her and tracks many aspects of her health. If the identified cow is deemed “eligible”, the robot aligns itself to her udder and dispenses a ration of her food.
“They are very interested in eating,” Amyotte said, adding that the ration is individualized to the cow, based on her lactation phase.
Incentivized by the food, the cow will allow the robot to clean her udder with a brush. The robot then uses lasers to sense and monitor her precise location, and milk her. Once the process is complete, she is released back to the herd.
Once the Lely robots are installed, they will be available for use at all hours of the day, seven days a week, except for when they are being washed or sanitized.
Amyotte said that for approximately three weeks after installation she and the rest of the staff will take rotating shifts so that there is someone on site at all times to help guide the cows to the robots, “until they make the connection that that’s what they need to do.”
According to Amyotte, 95 per cent of cows in a given herd successfully adapt to the system.
She said that though the technology has existed for some time, she believes her and her husband’s farm will be the first in the region to implement it.
“It’s going to be great, because we’re going to be able to really individualize the care for each animal,” she said.
She added that she believes the robots will become more mainstream as farmers update ageing infrastructure.
“It [robotic system] is becoming more cost-feasible,” she said. “In our case it would have cost more to stay with a conventional system.”
“That doesn’t mean it’s the answer for everybody,” she added. “You have different herd management styles and goals and aspirations that would drive you to choose different infrastructure – that’s very individual per farm – but this was right for us.”
Amyotte said that a big part of the draw is flexibility in terms of her and her family’s schedule, explaining that with the current system, there is no flexibility on the timing of the cows’ daily milking.
“[It’s] 365 days a year, so birthdays, Christmas, Easter, it doesn’t matter what’s going on, that’s what has to happen,” she said.
“We love to work with the animals, it’s work that we choose to do, but it’s nice on the flipside to be able to build a little bit of flexibility into your life.”
The benefits of
individualized care
Amyotte said her cows are already monitored with sensors that give stats on things like their daily level of movement, how much they eat, ruminate, lie down, and when they’re going into heat.
“I’m kind of a data junky so I’m pretty excited about being able to get the information off the cows,” she said.
The data collected in the collar of each animal with the new system will be sent in a report to Amyotte’s phone, along with an alert, if the system detects something unusual.
“When you’re dealing with a herd of production cattle, you need to consider them almost like athletes,” she said. “You need to provide them the nutrition and the comfort that they need to do their thing.”
“Cow comfort is very important,” she added.
The average cow produces around 30 litres of milk a day, and Amyotte said a high performing cow with good genetic make-up can produce up to 50 litres a day during peak lactation.
Amyotte said she expects her cows’ overall production levels to increase with the implementation of the new system.
“A cow could visit three to four times a day if she’d like, and that will automatically stimulate her to produce more,” Amyotte said, adding that the production increase is typically between 15 and 20 per cent.
“I’m optimistic that they [the cows] are going to adapt well. If I had any concern about their welfare, I wouldn’t be doing this,” she said.
Amyotte said that while the robots will expedite one portion of the tasks involved in caring for her cows, “The rest of the care remains the same. We’re still here 365 days a year.”
She emphasized the continuing need for her cows to be fed, have their stalls cleared and bedded, and be artificially inseminated.
“It’s not a silver bullet,” she added of the robots, “but I do think it’ll become more and more mainstream.”
“We’re displacing roles that not a lot of people want to fill.”
Amyotte said she plans on keeping her current team of staff in place for now to keep the cows comfortable and producing well.
“We’ve been planning for this for a long time,” she said. “We have a lot of university and college students that work for us that will be graduating. As people leave for their own natural reasons, we just won’t replace them.”
Amyotte said her and Beck’s own daughter, Cadence, is currently studying agriculture and business at the University of Guelph, with plans to return to run the farm in the future.
“The whole community has been very supportive. We’ve had a lot of good questions come out of it, but really overall, great support and enthusiasm,” Amyotte said.
“It’ll be a very busy winter, but we’re looking forward to the change.”

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