Feeding automation benefits cows, farmers & the environment

29 Jan 2024

Theo van der Zwaag from the Netherlands stands in front of a GEA automated feeding robot.

Feeding their cows is one of the most important tasks and daily routines of dairy farmers all over the world. Proper feeding not only to keeps cows healthy and in good shape but also lays the foundation to produce high-quality milk in sufficient volumes. A good feeding strategy is the key to efficient milk production. But in times of rising costs and shortages of hired labor, the pressure is high for dairy farmers to keep up profitability. 

We asked dairy farmers for their feeding strategies and how to balance animal welfare, flexibility and sustainability on their dairy farms. It turned out that most of the milk producers exactly know what they are aiming for, but their current feeding technology prevents them from reaching their full potential. 

Thanks to the excellent customer feedback from the market, GEA engineers were able to bridge several of these hurdles and launch the GEA DairyFeed F4500, an autonomously driving feeding robot that mixes and distributes the feed, pushes it towards the cows and enables fresh feed intake for all cows all day long while minimizing feed losses. For dairy farmers this comes with several advantages, such as healthier cows, higher milk yields, more flexibility by freeing up time from routing work and easy implementation of the system without any reconstruction work on the farm.

Milk as key to feeding a growing world population

Estimations of the United Nations project the world’s population to have reached 8 billion by the end of 2022 and to increase to almost 10 billion by 2050. With a growing world population, the need for high-quality food is rising. Milk and milk products are an important source of protein for human nutrition, containing all nine essential amino acids for human vital functions. According to the international expert network, IFCN, the dairy market will grow by more than 20 percent by 2030. 

The challenge for the dairy industry is therefore to produce milk as sustainably and economically as possible and ensure the longevity of today’s dairy operations.
Dairy worker Clémence Poussier from France stands in front of a GEA automatic feeding robot.

After the installation of the GEA feeding robot, milk production jumped from 28 to 36 liters per cow per day. There is no longer competition at the feeding table between the cows, even heifers have easy access to fresh feed and the opportunity to prepare them to express their f ull milk production potential. - Clémence & Luc Poussier, France

Farmers face business and sustainability challenges

Dairy farms continuously try to optimize their cost structures and become more and more efficient. One important input factor to keep a close eye on are the costs related to feeding. According to the European Commission, homemade and purchased feed represents about 60 percent of total operating costs and, therefore, sum up to the biggest part of flexible costs. Other expenditures related to feeding activities such as electricity and labor add on. Additionally, fertilizers, grains and energy have substantially increased in price in the last months and bring up the costs of milk production. 

Another trend that many industries are facing is the lack of skilled workers interested in the agricultural sector. A study conducted by Arla in the UK revealed that 80 percent of farmers looking for new personnel received few to no feedback. This development represents one of the strongest drivers for investments in automated solutions.

Thirdly, environmental regulations influence production methods on dairy farms. The Farm to Fork Strategy, which is part of the European Green Deal, aims to achieve carbon net zero by 2050. As of 2021, one-third of the global greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions come from food systems, according to the International Panel on Climate Change. Narrowing this to animal feed production, 39 percent of GHG emissions are from enteric fermentation of dairy cattle. 

On well-managed confinement farms, they contribute about 45 percent of the total GHG emission of the full farm system. Global GHG emissions from the production of food were found to be 17,318 ± 1,675 teragrams of CO2 equivalents per year, of which 57 percent corresponds to the production of animal-based food (including livestock feed), 29 percent to plant-based foods and 14 percent to other uses. 

“This overarching context creates a great challenge on how to feed cattle in a manner that allows farmers to be profitable and sustainable,” explains Carolina Hennings, Head of Automatic Feeding Systems at GEA.

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The team behind GEA's latest automated feeding technology poses for a group photo.

The team behind GEA's latest automated feeding technology poses for a group photo.

GEA responds with innovative technology

For many years, Hennings has been working together with a multidisciplinary team of feeding experts, engineers and sales and service colleagues to take on the challenge of analyzing customer needs and hindrances to farmers fully embracing new feeding technologies. After all, automated feeding solutions have been used in the market for more than 35 years. But the market penetration, apart from some selected European countries, still remained low compared to other farming automation systems such as milking robots. Less than 1 percent of European dairy farms were equipped with automatic feeding systems in 2013. Numbers rose in the following years. 

Farmers cited the large efforts and adjustments that needed to be made on the farm behind their slow adoption of automated feeding system technology. Another argument was missing connectivity of feeding systems with other herd and farm management software. Complexity and system handling were not seen as very user-friendly either. 

Based on all customer feedback from the market, engineers launched the innovative GEA DairyFeed F4500 system that combines the latest technology from animal feeding, robotics and system monitoring. The independently driving robot takes over the loading, mixing and distribution of feed and can be implemented on any farm irrespective of the surface conditions or slopes. 

But how can a feeding robot actively contribute to fight climate change?

Precision feeding and strategizing for reduced GHG emissions

Feeding automation on farms can help milk producers implement their desired feeding strategies and achieve productivity goals in several ways.
1. More milk with less feed

One trend in dairy farming stands out over the last several decades: Increases in the milk yield per cow have doubled or even tripled in some countries. In Germany, for example, the number of dairy cows decreased from 6.4 million in 1990 to 3.9 million today. At the same time, milk production per cow on average has nearly increased by 50 percent. Fewer dairy cows are feeding many more people, and this is largely because of advances in breeding, cow health, feeding and overall efficiency on the farm.

Scientific research shows a clear connection between cow milk production performance and feeding strategies. Parameters such as feed frequency, animal grouping, feed and mixing quality make the difference between average production rates and exceptional ones. The positive impact: Good feeding strategies will immediately result in a reduction of GHG emissions per animal. Increasing the milk production per cow is considered a powerful strategy to lower greenhouse gas emissions per kilogram of milk produced.

Model calculations show that increasing milk production can have a positive impact on GHG when the handling of the complete farm product (milk and beef) is taken into consideration. The example calculation indicates a drop from 9,578 to 7,689 kilograms CO2 per cow and per year with an increase in a cow’s milk production from 6,000 to 8,000 kilograms milk a year. This reduction in CO2 emissions is basically driven by the reduction of enteric fermentation, manure and soil N2O.

2. More flexibility with less work

Feeding without a fully automated system accounts for approximately 25 percent of the total working time requirements on a farm. A study conducted on European farms with an average size of 120 animals can save 112.15 minutes per day with an automated feeding system compared to a conventional one. This makes up for a significant reduction in labor time and, as a consequence, cost. It also lessens the burden to find new workers. Results at the same time showed farmers shared that they gained greater flexibility in their working hours while getting more accurate herd feeding.

3. Better cow welfare, fewer quality losses

A recommended feeding strategy is to increase the number of times that animals are fed during the day. As a ruminant, a cow needs its rumen microorganisms to have a good environment to optimally digest feed. The ideal pH in the rumen is around 5.5 to 6. Ruminal microorganisms do not adapt well to changes in the pH level, and an efficient way to maintain the pH in the rumen is to provide feed all day long. 

“Cows also have a tendency to sort against low particles, eating therefore an unbalanced diet that will influence negatively the rumen pH,” explains feeding expert Hennings. Therefore, proper distribution of the feed mix ration is always a matter of time. Once the mix ration is distributed to the animals, the degradation of the nutritional value starts. It is important that cows maintain access to the feed bunk at all times to be able to maintain a proper feed and nutrient intake. 

The usual practice on dairy farms is to push-up feed to allow all the cows to have access, but this does not ensure good quality of the ration provided to all cows. Studies show that cows had more equal access to feed throughout the day when the ration was distributed more frequently. Lower ranked cows were also not moved as much or as often, meaning they were able to feed more often with better access to the fodder. More frequent feeding also shows that cows tend to distribute their feeding time more evenly during the day.

In summary, for farms with conventional feeding technology, frequent feeding appears to be a labor-intensive activity. With automation, it is only limited to the number of animals in a group. The only remaining challenge is to get enough volume in a mixing batch to have a homogeneous feed mix. 

Dairy farmers Johannes Nickel and his father from Germany stand in front of a GEA automated feeding robot.

I used to spend a lot of time feeding my cows, but now, with the F4500, this has become much easier. I can offer specific rations for four different groups from calves to cows with a minimal investment of time. - Johannes Nickel, Germany

4. Desirable energy choice

Finally, the energy mix changes with automated feeding systems. Data show that farmers use 18 liters of diesel per cow a year to feed their herd with the mixer wagon in a conventional feeding setting. One liter of diesel represents 2.65 kilograms of CO2, according to the Institute für Technologie (KIT). Automated feeding systems use electricity as a source of energy. In a study conducted by the Bavarian State Research Center for Agriculture in 2015, an automated GEA MixFeeder system consumed 21.36 kilowatt-hours per animal a year. That’s 336 grams of CO2 equivalents in the form of energy mix as measured in 2020. Taking these values as a baseline for dairy cow farm with 200 heads, the emissions in a conventional feeding setting are 9,540 kilograms of CO2 per year. With automated feeding, the emissions drop to 1,435.4 kilograms per year. 

Considering the effort of different governments to improve the energy mix of electricity to more sustainable sources, it is foreseeable that the CO2 values per kilowatt-hour will be lower in the upcoming years.

Automated feeding solutions for sustainable feeding strategies

It's evident that automated feeding systems bring about various benefits for farmers, with labor savings being a notable immediate advantage. However, the long-term impact on productivity, energy efficiency, feed efficiency and waste reduction contributes significantly to a farm's environmental performance.

Automated feeding systems improve both profitability and sustainability and align with the broader shift toward greener technologies in agriculture. As governments implement regulations and offer subsidies to support environmentally friendly practices, feeding automation technologies become integral. This approach ensures that farms can not only enhance their economic viability but also play a role in reducing the overall carbon footprint of the agricultural sector.
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