Unlocking robotic herd potential with cow signals

The behavioural signals cows give out provide valuable clues on how to improve your system for maximum welfare and productivity. ForFarmers Bruce Forshaw discusses how the Cow Signals approach can help robotic systems secure marginal gains.

Robotic Milking
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All six Cow Signals – feed, water, light, air, rest and space – are important to robotic systems, contributing to cow health and longevity, says ForFarmers Product Manager and Master Cow Signals Trainer Bruce Forshaw.

“If you have invested in robots you probably have a good attention to detail and will be scoring high on each of those areas already. So we are now entering the realm of marginal gains,” he explains.

The idea of marginal gains is that once you are doing the basics right you visit each area or process to see how you can make a marginal improvement.

“In British Cycling this approach was used to take the team’s performance from mediocre to gold medal winning and then again with our national road cycling team which placed first in the Tour de France.”

Bruce advises farmers to consider each side of the Cow Signals diamond and think of ways to improve on it by a few percent.

“Improving those areas leads to better health. If you’re able to improve each of those six areas by just 2% that would mean a 12% increase overall.”


Ensuring there is enough space at the feed fence is the first step, says Bruce. “There should be at least 75 centimetres per cow at the feed fence and at least 85 centimetres for dry cows. Don’t believe it when people tell you that robot cows lose their herd mentality so you can get away with less.

“You can prove this to yourself with your own data. Can you see that your robots have busy times? This is because cows have a herd mentality. They have mates - often these are cows they have gone through the heifer rearing stage with – and they will go to the robot or water trough together.

“Your robots will probably be pretty much deserted at 2am, but a regular traffic jam will happen by about 4.30. Why? Because cows are herd animals.”

Feed barrier


Each milking cow needs 100 plus litres of water per day, so making sure there are no obstacles to achieving this is vital. Bruce advises 11cm of water space per cow.

“Troughs should be cleaned out as often as possible, but a minimum of twice a week. Water needs to be consistently clean, fresh and free from organic matter.”

Offering cows warm water from the plate cooler is a potentially easy way to increase intakes, he adds.

Cow drinking water


“Avoid internal walls. They block both light and airflow. Cows are prey animals, so they like to see what’s about, who’s coming and where the ‘wolves’ are.”

To get the best production cows needs good light - 200 Lux for 16 hours a day. That figure needs to be reversed for cows due to calve, so eight hours of daylight and 16 of darkness, which is not possible in the summer.

“The first time you looked at these things, you may have thought ‘that’s close enough’, but this time around, it’s about marginal gains. So if you can improve it by the smallest margin, do it. Put the lights on a timer, add a couple of extra lights. Now is the time.”

Inside completed shed at Petsey resized


“I’m sure you have been told 1000 times that a high-yielding cow needs to lay down for 12 to 14 hours a day. This increases the blood flow to her udder and gets the weight off her feet improving hoof condition and yield.

“Are your cows lying down quickly once they enter a cubicle? If not, why not? Waiting cows are telling you that things aren’t right. Maybe she is not comfortable enough. Deep sand beds are best. Or, they may not have enough lunge room at the front of the cubicle. The cow needs to be able to stand with all four feet in the cubicle before she can lie down.”

Cows lay in cublicles 1


Best practice is two rows of cubicles to a feed barrier and 3m wide passageways, says Bruce. “How much space do you have in front of the robots?

Cow signals recommend 6-8m between the robot and the first cubicles. If cows are waiting by the robot they are telling you something is wrong.

“At Total Dairy this year we saw a time lapse video of a heifer that tried for hours to get into the robot but got gazumped by higher ranking cows again and again. Take time to observe your heifers – are they having a hard time? We also hear of some cows who hang around robots and turn other cows away – should they be added to the cull list?”

Matthew Seniors Lely robot

To conclude, the cow is making the decisions on when to eat, drink, rest or be milked in a robotic system, says Bruce. “We need to encourage her to make the right choices, by making everything as easy and stress free as possible.

“Just like the cycling teams using marginal gains to get onto the winners’ podium, making small improvements to cow health can help producers edge towards their productivity goals too.”

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