Project Code: D-100-19

Project Team: Dr Gareth Arnott (QUB), Stephanie Buijs and Debbie McConnell (AFBI)

Background: In Northern Ireland, dairy farming is a key industry with in excess of 2,500 dairy farms, yet increasing herd sizes and reductions in the agricultural workforce have placed an increasing pressure on both national and international labour. In response to this, there has been an increasing uptake of robotic milking systems making use of state of the art technology whereby cattle voluntarily visit an automatic milking machine. Such technologies hold the potential to improve dairy cow welfare and enhance farm labour efficiency.

However, despite recent uptake of robotic milking in Northern Ireland, with estimates that 10% of the national herd is being milked by robots (such numbers are expected to increase), there is a lack of knowledge regarding cow behaviour and milking frequency with robotic milking, with some cows not transitioning well to these systems and requiring prolonged training. These issues can have negative effects on cattle welfare and production. The success of robotic systems depends on the cows’ voluntary behaviour, yet this remains to be fully understood.

Understanding and influencing cattle behaviour is the key to successfully implementing robotic milking of the dairy herd.


Objectives: The overall aim of this project is to improve cow welfare and productivity in robotic milking systems by optimising the visit frequency to the robot.

More specifically, using three experiments, this project will address the following objectives:

  1. Assess the effects of changes in feed allocation on dairy cow behaviour and welfare in robotic milking systems.
  2. Use relevant learning theory to investigate training strategies to increase regular voluntary milking visits to the robot.
  3. Investigate training strategies to deter ‘loitering’ (cows remaining in the robot area unnecessarily, thereby blocking other cows’ access).
  4. Evaluate strategies to encourage voluntary visits in animals that are lame and/or have a low social ranking.
  5. Evaluate the effect of the developed strategies on dairy cow welfare.