Human interaction critical for Animal Welfare on robotic farms

Between 2020 and 2022, DeLaval conducted a comprehensive study on the effects of large robotic farming on animal welfare.

“Automatic milking has been in place for more than 30 years but there are very few animal welfare studies,” says Enrique Bombal, Master of Science in Animal welfare and researcher at DeLaval. Bombal and his team wanted to rectify this situation and add some fresh knowledge to help both DeLaval’s farmers but also the industry at large. They conducted a study on one of the world’s largest robotic farms, the Agricola Ancali farm with its 6,500 cows and 90 milking robots (DeLaval VMS™).

One of the most unexpected results was the importance of human interaction. While there is not as much human interaction on an automatic milking farm compared with a conventional milking farm, the study showed that it has the same level of importance as with a conventional milking farm.

“What we’ve learnt is that anyone working on a robotic farm needs to be trained to know how to deal and interact with the animals. There are optimal ways of moving among the cows and ensure they remain calm,” says Bombal. “This was a surprise for us as we normally associate robotic farms as ones where the people aspect is not as critical but it turns out to be very important.”

The other main finding was on barn design and in particular in pre-milking. There are three different barn designs at the Ancali farm, which gave the researchers an opportunity to see how the different designs affected animal welfare.

“We see that it’s very important to make sure there is a good relationship between the cows in the pre-milking zone and even with the people interacting here. We found differences in the expression of the different behaviours of the cows when we compared the three designs (a pre-milking waiting area with one, two or three robots), and we even found differences depending on the zone of the pre-milking area where the cows were.”

“The design of the pre-milking area could influence the expression of different cow’s behaviours and this impacts animal welfare,” says Enrique. The other part of the study assessed the overall welfare of the animals in an automatic milking farm compared with a conventional farm. The team used the Welfare Quality® Assessment Protocol for cattle quantifying animal welfare and found that the results were similar to a conventional farm, apart from the two areas noted above.

“A study like this can affect the way barns are designed and managed in the future and improve animal welfare across the globe. It shows that it’s possible to further improve animal welfare even in these well-run automatic farms,” Enrique concludes.

Everything we do at DeLaval has food, human and animal safety in mind. With a long history of innovation in the dairy industry, we aim to improve milk quality, food production, animal welfare and both the animals’ and humans’ environment.