Rights: The University of Waikato Published 1 March 2006 Download

Researchers on the Greenfield team are constantly trying to keep one step ahead of the cows. They have been amazed by how clever the cows are and how quickly they can adapt to change. Cows' ability to learn is one of the characteristics that makes a cow more suitable for an automatic milking system. Jenny Jago explains.


Dr Jenny Jago (DairyNZ)

There are certain cows that are better suited to automatic milking than others. What we are really after is a cow that is able to learn - quite an intelligent animal. We’re also after a cow that is able to produce a large volume of milk, but to be able to cope with a longer milking interval.

If you look at the national herd, they are predominantly Friesians but there are a significant number of Jerseys. In our research herd we have mainly Friesians, but we also have some Jersey cows and a couple of Ayreshires. And the reason for that is to look at the differences between the breeds, because we may find that one breed is far more suited to automatic milking than another. So far what we have found is that it’s not so much the breed that is important, it’s the cow. So it’s her particular characteristics in terms of her milking speed, her milking yield, her intelligence and how quick she can learn the system. Rather than the Jersey versus the Friesians, it’s more about the individual.

What we’re looking for is a clever cow. What we’re asking them to do here is to walk off to the dairy to get milked either by themselves or in small groups, which is a little bit against what cows typically want to do because cows are typically social animals, they like to hang around in groups and they have a definite social structure in their herd.

We need a cow that can cope with a slightly longer milking interval. Typically what we do on this farm is we don’t milk the cows twice a day. So at the moment cows on average are milked once every 18 hours. The reason we do that is to try and maximise the number of cows we can get milked through our machines. So we’re after cows that are quite happy to do that, and we’ve found that they will do that, but some are more willing to do that than others.

Cows are really clever and that’s one of the things we’ve found on this project is they are very quick to learn and react to the environment and the situation on the farm. We do have situations where the very clever cows time their run. They basically go and get milked prior to the new grass being available, and then they will wait in an exit race. They seem to have very good internal clocks, and they will wait there until the gate moves and at that point they move on out to their new grass. So that is one example. Other examples are cows that push up behind another cow as she leaves the selection unit. You have two cows in there, and the cow at the front waits for another cow to come in behind whose identification makes the gates turns the way she wants them to go. So she waits there to get a signal from another cow coming up behind, so that instead of having to go to the dairy, for example, the gates change and then she can scoot through and go out to the paddock. Very smart cows!

Fairly early on we had the situation where the cows learned to open to one-way gates in the wrong direction. So we had to actually do quite a bit of development with our engineer to develop gates that the cows couldn’t misuse. It is a continual challenge because they respond very quickly to changes on the farm. So we are always trying to keep one step ahead of the cows, and make changes so that we can get these machines being fully utilised, so that we can get back to our purpose and that is to maximise the milk solids, or the milk we can harvest through each machine. And to be able to do that we need them fully utilized, so we need the milking going on continuously for 24 hours.