Forking silage back to the feed barrier is a never-ending battle no sooner have you finished than the cattle have nosed it back out of reach.

But that could be about to change with the arrival of an automated feeder from Austria that not only performs the thankless task, but also stimulates feed intake.

Designed and built by Wasserbauer in northern Austria, the Butler was initially designed as a labour-saving device for Austrian dairy farmers. But its true potential was only realised by chance.

The 150 farms across Austria employing the Butler robotic feeder have reported an increase in milk yields and milk solids, a reduction in total concentrate use and improved body condition.

Since the feeder was installed at Franz and Gerlinde Feichtlbauer’s Findl Farm near Linz in August 2005 average milk yield has increased from 8700 litres a cow a year to 9600 litres a cow year while concentrate use has fallen by an average of 1kg a cow a day.

Feeding behaviour

By observing the feeding behaviour of his cows, Mr Feichtlbauer noted that the feed intake took place at three main periods during the day: First, during the early hours of the morning before milking second, for a short period in the mid-morning and third, for an extended period in the evening through to the early hours.

So his Butler feeder performs 25 runs during a 21-hour period applying an average of 6kg a head a day of concentrate spread over 23 passes (two passes perform the mundane task of pushing the forage back to the barrier without applying concentrate).

Prompting the cows to eat more often by tempting them with tasty concentrate boosts dry matter intake and gives the more submissive animals in the group greater opportunities to eat without having to compete in the dash for feed often seen in systems employing twice-daily feeding.

Complement not replacement

The machine is not promoted as a replacement to conventional feeding systems such as the Total Mixed Ration approach, but instead acts as a complement – Mr Feichltbauer still feeds 2kg a cow a day of brewers’ grains through the forage box. But it can be used to replace or augment in-parlour feeding systems.

The feed requirements for up to 30 groups can be programmed into the on-board computer via a standard phone-style keypad. Costs vary depending on the number of cattle to be fed, which in turn dictates the length of rail required on which the machine runs. But Paddy Flynn from UK distributor TTMS reckons a system suitable for a 200-cow unit equates to £125-130 a cow.

The self-charging, maintenance-free feeder with its 150-litre feed hopper is to be officially launched at the Highland Show (19-22 June), although six UK farms have already ordered units.