This last week I completed a placement on a robotic dairy farm. I was very interested to see how a dairy functioned/filled up their time if there wasn’t 2 or 3 scheduled milking times a day. Through this week I learned that dairy operations are all about routine and cycles.
Each day starts and ends with feeding calves. We would use diverted milk from the robots and milk from the bulk tank to fill a portable pasteurizer. The machine would warm the milk to a sufficient temperature for calves. Specific amounts of milk could be dispensed from the pasteurizer into nipple buckets for the calves. Older calves were group housed and also received pellets. Sometimes calves have not learned how to drink off the nipple buckets and we have to help/teach them. Newborn calves are taken off their mothers and bottle fed (or stomach tubed) 2L of colostrum 3 times in the first 12 hours. The babies also receive a preventative scours pill.
Other regular chores include moving animals around the farm depending on what stage in their lactation cycle they are at. Cows that are kept outside will grow a winter coat so they can keep warm. Once the cows are brought inside (because they are fresh) they will be too hot and sweaty in the barn. One day I spent a bit of time trimming a cow so she would be more comfortable. (I hope they aren’t planning on showing her anytime soon!). Checking young stock for foot problems, pink eye, gait, signs of estrus, signs of abortions in bred cows, etc. is also a daily task. Three times during the day the mattress beds are raked clean and bedding spread out. This helps to keep the cows clean and comfortable reducing the risk of infection.
It is always essential to make sure the robots are working properly. This involves checking stats and alarms on the computer in the office. Sometimes cows that go through the robots are marked as ‘incomplete’ because not all 4 quarters of their udder were milked. Each of these cows needs to be found in the barn and checked (possibly mastitis, kicking off cups, bad conformation, etc) and then milked out. I stripped a quarter of an udder by hand in a cow that had mastitis (we did a CMT test first) and then gave her treatment. Each time we medicate a cow that treatment needs to be entered into the computer system so that when the robot milks her the treated milk can be diverted out of the bulk tank.
Outside of the regular routine on the dairy we artificially inseminated (AI) a couple of cows based on the observation of estrus behavior (mounting), activity levels recorded in the computer, and days in milk.
Every 2 weeks on the dairy a herd health check is completed by the veterinarian. On Wednesday the vet was doing pre-breed checks and preg-checks. I grabbed a glove and palpated along behind the vet trying to feel the things he was describing. (For my non-animal friends this does mean that I was sticking my arm up cow butts). Next, we went to another barn and preg-checked heifers to assess if they were open(not pregnant), bred (pregnant), or needed to be started on an ovsynch protocol. When the vet comes he sedates some of the older calves so that we can go through and dehorn them with a hot iron dehorner. Cattle need to be dehorned to make the farm safer for other animals and staff.
On Friday I was lucky enough to be put in contact with the farm’s nutritionist. Well managed farms will typically consult with a nutritionist to formulate appropriate diets for the different groups of animals. It was a farm call day for the nutritionist so as we drove around we chatted about feed, agriculture, dairies, school, etc. The first dairy we visited was a simpler operation than the one I was on all week. The most interesting area was the nurse cows. Cows that were not good milkers were removed from the herd and put in a pen with calves. The calves suckled naturally from the cows until they were about 5 months of age. We visited a second dairy after lunch as well. I found it interesting that not only did the nutritionist complete Pen State Shaker tests, discuss rations, and evaluate feed–he also consulted the farm on all other areas of management.
Professional hoof trimmers will visit dairy barns a few times a year. Lameness/gait issues are often a major problem in dairy barns. To treat cows with foot rot, ulcers, and other problems the regular staff can do touch ups on the cattle. I learned that sometimes the hoof trimmer will add a wooden block to the hoof to reduce pressure on certain areas and promote healing.
The farmer I spent some of my time with this week is extremely forward thinking and willing to try new things to move his farm business forward. One of his latest trials included feeding yucca as an additive. According to the workers the yucca seemed to be increasing the dry matter intake of the cows and stabilizing intake over the week. I’ve seen many cool feeds for dairy cattle on other farms including: brewers grains, candy, oranges/lemons, grapeseed, etc.
I got to practice my cattle clinical skills this week with IV injections through the jugular, drawing blood through the tail vein, giving intra-mammary infusions and several intramuscular injections, palpating, and even trying my hand at dehorning!
I apologize for the long post! I had a lot of fun on the dairy this week; it reminded me of my time in my undergrad studying dairy science, preparing for the North American Intercollegiate Dairy Challenge and competing at the regional and national competitions in California and Indiana. I would highly recommend this competition to any pre-vet or vet students in North America!
Dairy farming is quite different in North America than it is in Australia! I would love to chat more about the differences in the industry with anyone interested.
For a brief overview of the robotic farm I was at check out this quirky video a few of my previous classmates made: