University of Guelph Kemptville Campus’ Dairy Education and Innovation Centre Exceeds Expectations

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Two years have gone by since the opening of the state-of-the-art education and research facility, and the awards for dairy production are piling up.

When the University of Guelph Kemptville Campus’ Dairy Innovation and Education Centre opened in May 2011, faculty, staff, students, alumni and the farming community had high expectations for the state-of-the-art facility.

It would provide the dairy industry with an education and demonstration facility that could serve as a model of technological advancement and enable technology transfer to students and industry.

It would bring Kemptville Campus to the leading edge of dairy technology and surpass current industry standards in design and functionality.

It would present opportunities to demonstrate best practices in housing and other animal care issues, and it would facilitate and promote innovative dairy research, providing opportunities for research collaboration on local, national and international levels.

Two years later, the Dairy Education and Innovation Centre is doing all that and more – the facility’s robotic milking system is winning awards for Kemptville Campus, thanks to the increased milk production of its dairy herd.

When the Centre opened, it earned Kemptville Campus the distinction of being the first institution of its kind in Canada to install a robotic milking system. The “robot” is a fully-automated unit where the cows are milked without human intervention. Each of the cows wears a special collar that contains a computer chip. During milking, the system collects a wide variety of data on individual cows that can used by students, researchers and the dairy industry at large. The system, which operates 24/7, also provides round the clock video monitoring of the herd.

Here’s how the robotic milker works. A cow steps into the milking unit, which resembles a small stall, and starts munching on a high carbohydrate feed. When she steps on the sensor, the computer identifies her. It “knows” if she has recently calved, or is getting close to calving; it knows the time of her last milking, how much milk was collected, the amount of fat in the milk, its temperature and colour, and much more. The four teat cups or inflations attach to the teats and the milking begins. A monitor on the side of the unit indicates the cow’s name, number and weight, and tracks the amount of milk that is being collected. Once the rate of milk slows down, the teat cups disengage. The udder is then sprayed with a disinfectant, and the cow exits the milking unit. The whole process takes about six to seven minutes.

The system collects the data and sends it to the main computer where it is analyzed. Analysis indicates what each cow has been eating, how well she’s doing out in the pasture, and whether she might have an infection – among other things.

It’s the desire for the carbohydrate-rich feed, which is made available in rationed portions while they are being milked, that draws the cows to the robotic milker. If a cow tries to be milked too soon after the last milking, she is refused.

The leading edge technology for dairy cows in Canada, the Centre’s robotic milking system has benefits for both the herd and the Kemptville Campus’ dairy producers, as well as students.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, the robot has made milking a more natural process for the Campus’ herd, explains Research Dairy Technician Albert Koekoek. This is true because the cows come in for milking when they want to, rather than on a schedule set by dairy staff.

The cattle thrive under this system, Koekkoek explains, because they are “all about routine”. With the robotic unit, milking is more consistent, and therefore the cow’s routine is more consistent.

Many of the benefits for the Campus’ dairy producers derive from the wealth of data that is collected on each cow by the robotic milker; analysis of the data results in a healthier herd, and a healthier herd produces more milk.

For example, the system sends up an alert if a cow is losing weight, or if the temperature of her milk is higher than normal; this indicates that her body temperature may also be high, and she may have an infection. The activity monitor on each cow’s collar also keeps track of how often and how many times her cud goes up and down, while an antenna records her rumen temperature, an important indicator of health. The computer will send up an alert if a cow is not chewing her cud enough, and will suggest her temperature be taken. In this way, health issues are discovered – and solved – sooner.

The video monitoring system also allows staff to keep better track of the herd and spot potential problems quickly: video screens show which cows are standing up, being milked, or giving birth.

Another important benefit of the robotic milking system is the increased frequency of milking and, as a result, the higher milk production of the herd. As Koekkoek explains, now that the cows are coming in on their own to be milked, they are being milked more often. The herd used to be milked twice a day – at 5am and 4pm; under the robotic milking system each cow is being milked between 2.8 and 2.9 times per day, a significant increase in production. The system will allow a cow to come for milking a maximum of three times within a 24-hour period. Conversely, if a cow hasn’t visited the stall in over 12 hours, she gets flagged, and staff will bring her in to be milked.

The robotic milking system is also a labour saving technology. When the system was introduced in 2011, one staff member retired, and was not replaced. However, as Koekkoek, who has been with Kemptville Campus for 25 years, explains, “When you come right down to it, it’s still a barn. Human beings are needed, but for more specific tasks.” For example, there is a cow in the Campus’ herd that has trouble properly attaching to the milking unit because she tends to kick; staff will help her. There is another cow with stiffness in her joints that needs to be encouraged to step in to the milking unit.

“The software is only as good as what you put in it,” Koekkoed adds. Staff are also needed to input calving and breeding dates, along with other information, so that the computer can send up alerts about breeding, etc., at the right time.

Benefits for students of the robotic milking system include the opportunity to learn real-time herd monitoring, data management techniques, and the ability to capture individual cow information. Exposing them to the robotic milking technology gives the students a distinct advantage after graduation.

The quality of the educational experience at Kemptville Campus has been enhanced, and the facility is exceeding expectations as an education and demonstration facility and enabler for technology transfer.

Not long after the opening of the Dairy Education and Innovation Centre, the improved milk production achieved by the robotic milking system began to be recognized.

Kemptville Campus has won five awards for milk production since the Centre opened. In 2011, the Campus achieved the highest herd average in Grenville County, and in 2012, the Campus won four County-wide awards: the highest individual cow award, and the highest production award for a three-year-old-cow, for a two-year-old cow, and for a yearling!

Koekkoek’s response? “We're proud we’re the top of the County, but we’re not the top of the province. There’s room for improvement!” he declares.

The Dairy Innovation and Education Centre is also exceeding expectations as a facilitator and promoter of innovative dairy research, says Research Station Operations Manager Tom Beach. “Campus researchers are engaged in a number of groundbreaking research activities at the facility,” he explains. These include a feed study featuring an automated feed trough that electronically monitors each cow’s intake and feed patterns, and investigative projects designed to measure the impact of milking frequency, feed delivery frequency and stall design on cow behavior, health and production. New techniques for calf housing management and replacement heifer feeding management are also under development at the Dairy Education and Innovation Centre.

Another innovative feature of the facility is its bedding: the cows lie down on water mattresses, rather than on more traditional bedding materials like straw, hay or sawdust. Research indicates that water mattresses are the next best system for dairy cows after lying on the ground as they would in nature. The barn is a free-stall environment where the cows can walk around and lie down when they want to, as opposed to a tie-stall barn.

The Kemptville Campus’ Dairy Education and Innovation Centre operates like a typical dairy farm in that its milk is picked up every other day and processed like milk from dairy farms across the province. On a typical day recently, the facility shipped 3,682 litres of milk, which was two days’ production, equivalent to 1,800 litres per day. With 50 cows in the herd, the average yield per cow per day was 37.91 kg.

Like other dairy farms, the Centre’s quota is set by the Dairy Farmers of Ontario. When the Dairy Education and Innovation Centre opened, Kemptville Campus was granted additional quota, which allowed it to expand its herd to 50 cows.

Like other dairy farms, the Kemptville facility aims to have each cow calve once a year. The cows are milked for 300 days after calving, reaching their peak of production at 60 to 100 days, then “dried off” and given eight weeks of rest before calving again, when the cycle starts anew.

With its robotic milking technology, the Dairy Education and Innovation Centre has secured Kemptville Campus’ future as a leader in dairy education and research.

The Centre will allow the Campus to continue to advance its research and education programs in alignment with industry innovation and progress.

The facility is well positioned to continue to exceed expectations in education, demonstration and research – the milk production awards are the icing on the cake!

For more than 95 years, the Campus has delivered life-changing and life-improving learning opportunities at the undergraduate, diploma, certificate, and continuing education levels. As part of the University of Guelph’s Ontario Agricultural College, Kemptville Campus also carries on a long tradition of innovative and high quality life science education. Kemptville Campus is proud to offer a wide range of applied research and instructional programs addressing the science and business of agriculture, equine, food and related skilled trades.

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Jenny Read
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