‘Cow choice’ underpins Harper Adams dairy redesign

Work is under way at a leading agricultural university to look at how dairies can adjust dynamic systems to bring the benefits of the outdoors inside.

A £750,000 development at Harper Adams University will offer cows the choice of grazing outside or remaining housed in cubicles.

Adaptive ventilation will also offer individual cows optimised temperature to evaluate the effect tailored cow comfort can have on yields.

This follows trials at the university showing a 20% yield increase from cows given the choice between pasture or a total mixed ration (TMR) indoors.

Potential dynamic adjustments for cow choice

  • Automated gating allowing preference to pasture or housing
  • Offering grazing according to weather and time of day (hold, cold, wet, windy, day, night)
  • Offering cows choice between grass and clover
  • Ventilated areas to cool cows
  • Robotic milking for varied milking times

Much of the extra milk came from an even split between increasing grazed grass and a 15% increase in cow lying time, according to Harper Adams applied animal behaviour expert Mark Rutter.

“One trial showed cows were eating TMR faster and then heading out to pasture, as if to optimise their own diet,” Prof Rutter says.

“Cows with the grazing option were lying for 52% of the day, which is hitting the ideal 12-hour mark, whereas cows housed all day were lying for 35% of the day.”

Prof Rutter says the primary reason for carrying out the trial is to increase production efficiencies.

The trial in more detail

The unit will comprise a robotic milker and a 50- to 55-cow herd drawn from the university’s existing herd of about 400 cows, currently milked on a 40-point rotary parlour twice a day.

Grazing access will be restricted by automated selection gates and SmartBow eartags are planned for easy location of cows and the ability to monitor group dynamics and show how promoting cow choice influences yield.

Benefits of cow choice

  • Better loafing behaviour
  • Improved estrous behaviour
  • Lying time increased
  • Higher yields (from cows already giving about 9,000 litres)

Prof Rutter adds: “This is about bringing the best of the outdoors to indoor systems. Often on cold, wet days cows opt to stay in; our trails have shown this and back in 2012 cow comfort was really affected by the very wet summer.”

The new dairy will serve the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation Centre (Agri-EPI), a government-funded centre to be overseen by Cranfield and Harper Adams University and a third hub under construction in Edinburgh.

While current milk prices leave many commercial farmers cutting costs rather than reinvesting, Prof Rutter maintains these types of technologies being trialled in the dairy have short pay-off periods of less than one year.