The robot that feeds you

Author: Maarten Crivits (ILVO) - Date: November 27, 2018

One of the key roles of technology has always been to make it more easier on us. This seems to be particularly the case with automatic feeding systems: feeding your cows with a robot significantly reduces labor efforts. Important question however always remains: ‘does it fit my farm?’, both technically and economically.

A delegation of 4D4F COP members went out to visit one of the 5 dairy farmers in Flanders that is making use of the Lely Vector, the only available full automatic feeding system in the low countries. One of the key advantages of these feeding robots is that they significantly reduce labor efforts. That is exactly the reason why the farmers in question invested in the technology. Since their various activities in arable farming, the time allocated to feeding the cows was just too high.

An automatic feeding system makes use of a so-called ‘feeding kitchen’, the place where the grabber selects the feed on the basis of a sensor system, supplemented with the specific concentrates coming from additional tubes. In this kitchen different rations can be prepared, optimized by group (e.g. young stock, dairy cows, beef cattle ). The robot takes care of everything, including feed push ups. Two times a week (about 2.5 hours) is sufficient in order to get the acquired feed from the silage to the kitchen, the farmer in question mentions. One way to minimize heat damage in silage is to make us of a silage cutter, providing a clean feed cut.

As you might expect from a robot, the automatic feeding system can be used 24/7, which results in a much higher number of feeding moments than with conventional feeding systems. The robot provides the dairy cows about 7-8 times a day with new feed. This more dispersed feeding pattern seems to have several advantages. First, smaller portions seem to lead to a more stable digestion and smaller pH fluctuations, which might also increase milk yield. Second, feed waste seems to be reduced significantly (see also Bisaglia, 2012). Furthermore, frequent pushing and feeding reduces competition at the feed bunk, which is especially beneficial to heifers and more submissive cows.

While these seem to be clear advantages of an automatic feeding system, these need to be assessed clearly in relation to both the technical and economic aspects of the specific farm.

With regard to the construction of the stable(s) it is important to know that an automatic feeding system works with a railing-system on which the robot completes is various routes. Questions are then: are the stables not too far located from each other, is the area flat enough for the robot to make its tour? Is there a good central place for the feed kitchen?  The more rails, the higher the price will be.

When it comes to measuring costs, several things should be taken into account. For a basic system with minimum rails it can be expected that prices range between 100.000 and 135.000. The feed kitchen and silage cutter will amount to about a 60.000 euro extra. Of course also fuel costs (diesel, electricity), insurance, and reimbursement of own labor will need to be taken into account. This then needs to be compared with alternative options (Self-propelled mixer feeders, hiring labor) as well as with national investment that might be subsidies available.