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Automatic feeding systems deliver more feedings, less labour

Published on 31 August 2013

Robots are milking cows, pushing up feed and scraping manure on dairies around the world. For several years, they have been feeding cows in Europe, and now three companies have plans to introduce similar, yet different, systems in North America.

In general, these systems automatically load, mix and deliver fresh feed all day, every day around the farm. They are comprised of a kitchen where feed is automatically pulled from various bays or bins and mixed in the mixer, which then delivers it to the feedbunk. "All the dairyman has to do is load the kitchen with fresh silage.



The system takes care of the rest,” Alan Brandmeyer, Western U.S. and Western Canada regional sales manager for Trioliet, says.

The location of the kitchen can be adjusted based on the farm layout. It can be added on to a barn or located in a separate building. Its position would allow for bulk bins or upright silos to feed directly into it. Forages from bags or bunker silos will need to be delivered and loaded in the kitchen throughout the week.

“On average, the kitchen should be loaded every two to three days in the summer and every five days in the winter, if the feed was put up well,” Dan Schreiner, Lely North America Farm Management Support (FMS) adviser, says.

“The biggest objective is to maintain feed freshness in the kitchen,” he continues. “How well the feed is packed and preserved plays a big role in that.”

By not having to deliver feed daily, the kitchen can be loaded the day before a social event, a pending snowstorm or making hay. “That flexibility for the farmer is great,” Schreiner says.

Plus, filling the kitchen takes less time and doesn’t demand such high skills as mixing a ration. Any good tractor driver can do it.

The cows benefit too, given they will receive multiple, smaller feedings per day. It keeps the feed fresher and pushed up. Therefore, it is less likely for sorting to occur and it encourages greater dry matter intake.

“The cow itself is a grazing animal and prefers to eat four to six times a day,” Brandmeyer says. By delivering fresh feed throughout the day, cows will eat more and perform better. Plus, there won’t be as much old feed left to clean up from the bunk.

The software and precision offered with the robot can help farms track feed inventories.

It also provides the flexibility to offer more rations to smaller pen sizes. A producer can now feed a different ration to milking cows, dry cows, close-up cows, heifers and sick cows without taking extra time from their day.

The feed delivery units are quiet, compared to a diesel tractor and mixer wagon. In addition, electrical costs for the system are comparable to only a few litres of fuel.

Similar to other robotic technology, it is programmed to call the farmer when something goes wrong. Plus, there are built-in safety systems to stop the unit if needed.

DeLaval Optifeeding
DeLaval Optifeeding system

For the first time in North America, components of the DeLaval Optifeeding system will be on display at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show, Sept. 10-12, in Woodstock, Ontario.

The system was developed in Europe and is now in use in Western Europe, Eastern Europe and South America.

In its fully automated state, feed is loaded into buffer tables. Augers and conveyor motors are activated to load recipe components into a stationary mixer that can control many feed batches per day.

Feed is emptied from the mixer into a feed shuttle that travels by rail to deliver feed to the cow.

Instead of installing the buffer tables, a dairy producer can utilize the mixer-shuttle system by direct loading of the mixer.

The cost of the system varies depending on how it is set up, says Jean-François Lambert, branch manager, DeLaval LSO Canada.

The main feature of this system is that the feed software can communicate with the company’s herd-management software used by the milking equipment. “Producers with Herd Navigator, our on-farm milk sampling and analysis tool, can use the system’s urea testing data to fine tune their feeding and easily change the ration,” Lambert says.

For more information, go to or contact your local DeLaval dealer.

The Trioliet Triomatic
Trioliet Triomatic

Another system that operates along a rail is the Triomatic offered by Trioliet.

In use in Europe for several years and now available in North America, the company plans to have 60 systems in place worldwide by the end of 2013.

The first system on this continent is currently being installed in Illinois.

The 3-cubic-metre mixer has knives capable of cutting, grinding and mixing. “It’s not just for delivery,” Brandmeyer says.

Traveling by overhead rail, one robot can feed up to 500 cows.

The rail can be installed outside with a roof overtop for travel to other buildings. It can also go up and down hills on a limited slope.

The mixer is capable of hoisting itself up and over gates. Some farms will use it for bedding freestalls with mixer-friendly ingredients like sawdust and chopped straw.

A feed pusher attachment can be installed to push up feed as it travels. There is also a carousel option that will direct the robot down different tracks.

It mixes and delivers a certain amount of feed at certain times of the day based on the program set up by the farm. “It does what it is told to do,” Brandmeyer says.

The company offers four different options for its automatic feeding system:

T10 – This is the robot only with no kitchen. It is fed by upright silos and bulk bins.

T20 – The robot is used with another stationary mixer where feed is manually loaded. This is for farmers that want to dispense a single basic ration and potentially add various components per feed group to the robotic feeder.

T30 – This uses the kitchen with chain-driven, live-bottom bunkers. Feed from bales, baleage, bags or bunkers are loaded into these units and automatically pulled in the desired portion to the mixer.

T40 – In this kitchen, the bunkers are replaced with feed floors for storing blocks of silage that are cut from outdoor bunker silos. Because the blocks stay tightly packed, the feed stays fresher longer.

Brandmeyer says the rail system can be installed in existing facilities, and you don’t need the concrete to be perfectly smooth.

A power rail that travels alongside the main rail powers it. At any point the robot has full power, which won’t compromise its mixing abilities.

The system does require three-phase electricity, which is common on farms that implement other forms of robotic technology, such as automatic milking systems.

The cost varies from $100,000 to $400,000, depending on the number of feedstuffs and size of the farm.

Go to or contact your local dealer for more information.

Lely Vector
Lely Vector

Lely introduced its Vector feeding system last year at Canada’s Outdoor Farm Show. It has been commercially available since May and is now on three farms in Canada.

Unlike the two rail systems, this one moves along the ground. It has the same base as Lely’s feed-pushing unit, with a TMR mixer on top.

It will constantly drive through the building pushing up feed. Along the way, it uses a laser to measure the height of the feed in the bunk.

It makes a note of the pen that needs more feed and will mix up that ration the next time it is in the kitchen.

When it leaves the kitchen, it continues on the same route – pushing and measuring – but this time it will stop to dispense the feed when it reaches the pen in need.

The robot will automatically adjust for increased or decreased intakes because its settings are based on how much to dispense at a time and how low the bunk should get before a new batch is delivered.

It can feed up to 14 different pens or rations. The machine runs around the clock and “has quite a bit of capacity,” Schreiner says. A single robot can service a 300-cow dairy. If it only has to make a short trip with an inside feed alley, it could support more animals, he estimates.

The robot can travel between buildings. It can travel up to a 5 percent slope and plow its own snow, but some farms will build a breezeway to keep ice from being a problem.

When the robot enters the kitchen, it pulls into a docking station that charges the battery. Here, the mixer runs off the main power source. If two robots are in use, a second charging station is installed. This is where a robot would park and wait if the one in the kitchen is occupied.

The kitchen uses silage blocks cut from the bunker. A feed grabber pulls off what it needs and weighs out the amount into the robot. In time, it learns how much each feedstuff weighs and only pulls that amount.

The cost varies based on the design for each farm, but it averages $189,000, which includes the robot and elements in the kitchen.

Nicolaas Zeldenrijk from Mt. Elgin, Ontario, was one of the first producers in Canada to install this system. He learned about it while planning a new robotic milking facility for his 150-cow herd. At the same time, he was considering replacement of his 12-year-old TMR mixer.

The feeding system was installed on the back of his existing freestall barn and started operating in March. Two months later, he moved his milking herd to the new milking facility, and dry cows and heifers now occupy the old freestalls. A path was built between the two barns for the robot feeder.

With the robot in mind, he was able to put a smaller feed alley in the new barn. It is still big enough for a tractor and mixer, but it’s tight. By removing 4 feet from the length of the building, which includes underground manure storage, he saved $50,000.

After considering all available feeding systems, Zeldenrijk chose this one because of its ability to push up feed and measure the remaining feed in the bunk.

He can now feed seven different mixes in the dry-cow and heifer barn. The milking herd receives a single ration, with individualized amounts of energy pellets fed in the robotic milking unit.

Zeldenrijk says he likes it because of the freedom. “I can do it any time I want. It doesn’t have to be morning and night,” he says.

He used to feed the milk cows twice a day and the other groups once a day. He figures on average he would spend 12 hours a week feeding cows, and now his time is needed for just four hours a week.

In the summer, he fills the kitchen every other day. He hasn’t experienced a winter yet, but his goal is to go every seven days if the blocks are big enough.

The blocks put a nicer face on his bunker, and with the kitchen under roof, he doesn’t have to worry about a moisture difference in the ration on snowy and rainy days.

The system also allows him to feed younger heifers a more precise ration. One of Zeldenrijk’s goals is to cut his number of replacement heifers in half, down to 75. This system helps him feed to what he needs so he can start breeding them earlier – at 13 months.

He has expressed to Lely that he would like to add his youngest weaned calves to the route. He also wants to be able to utilize two types of corn silage – low-quality blocks for heifers and high-quality blocks for cows.

For more information on this feed system, go to or contact a Lely dealer.  PD

TOP: DeLaval Optifeeding

MIDDLE: The Trioliet Triomatic

BOTTOM : Lely Vector

All are examples of automatic feeding systems that can deliver multiple, precise rations around the clock. Photos courtesy of Trioliet, Lely North America and DeLaval.

The following checklist can be used to determine if this new technology might be a fit for your operation.
1. Do you want to save time feeding cows?
2. Would you like to add flexibility to your feeding schedule?
3. Are you interested in feeding four to six times a day?
4. Would you want to deliver more types of rations?
5. Do you put up feed well?
6. Do you have room to add or expand a feed building?
7. Are your buildings in close proximity to one another?
8. Do you have three-phase power?

If you answered yes to six or more of these questions, this technology may be one for you to consider.