Symposium

A better understanding

Impressions, conclusions, queries

The International Symposium on Automatic Milking, Lelystad March 24-26 2004, was attended by 340 participants from 24 countries. Many came from the Netherlands and neighbouring countries but others from as far as Oceania, Japan and North America. In a friendly atmosphere a total of 48 oral and about 80 poster presentations were given and discussed. Around 60% of the presentations originated from the EU research project on the implications of automatic milking. It is virtually impossible to summarize everything presented. Therefore, a number of rather personal, statement-like conclusions and queries have to suffice here. All information presented is available in the proceedings (http://www.wageningenacademic.com/automaticmilking).

It becomes quite clear, at least in Europe, that farmers are presently emphasising the economic and even more the social component of sustainability: dairy farmers desire an appropriate income, less hours of labour and a larger share of social life. Options are than to hire (cheap) labour, to start new co-operatives or automation. Where cheap labour is not available and tying up in a co-operative is not an option the automatic milking system comes in the picture.

The room for investment in automatic milking is determined by the value of labour savings or appreciation of spare time/freedom/ anticipated, augmented with the value of the expected additional milk yield and costs saved on investment in a conventional milking parlour, and divided by the yearly costs of the automatic milking system(s). So where labour costs are high or more spare time is highly appreciated, automatic milking becomes an attractive alternative. In Europe, present adopters are middle sized enterprises with high numbers of cows (50-100) and herd yields per hand (>700.000 kg) and, therefore, labour under pressure. In North America however, the future may show quite different adopters. Penetration of automatic milking may be slowed down by decreasing margins on milk, the inherent inflexibility of the AM-systems when increasing herd size and difficulties in combining automatic milking with grazing. With respect to the latter we may however learn a lot from New Zealand and Australia in the near future.

The attitude of press and society towards automation of milking can be characterized as indifferent to slightly favourable and is expected to remain so, unless automatic milking is connected with a product quality scandal or grazing of dairy cattle becomes a real political issue.
Automatic milking urged a new definition of abnormal milk in the EU Hygiene Directive. Such a new definition, endorsed by experts, is available. It will be a challenge for the industry to develop accurate sensors for in line sorting of abnormal milk in conformity with this definition.
Although milk quality requires attention during the transition period from conventional to automatic milking, in general no serious problems are encountered afterwards. The observed increase in free fatty acids demands more research. Moreover, the importance of farm hygiene, adequate udder and teat cleaning and accurate system cleaning should be stressed.

When changing to automatic milking, hardly any negative or positive effects on animal health and welfare are observed. Udder health, particularly in fresh cows, and claw health should be carefully monitored, specially when the herd is kept indoors; so should the intake of dry matter by lower ranking cows.
Finally, for the sake of improved management support, the industry is challenged to realize a better integration between milking system and herd management software, to improve control functions of the milking system and to further develop sensors for management support.

Albert Meijering,
Chairman of the organising committee


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