The objectives of this cross-sectional study were to describe housing and management practices on farms using automatic milking systems (AMS) in 2 states of the upper Midwest and to evaluate the association of various housing and management factors with 3 measures of animal welfare: prevalence of lameness, severe hock lesions, and dirty cows. Fifty-four farms were visited once to collect facility measurements and observations, interview the dairy producer, and score cows for locomotion, hock lesions, and hygiene. Median number of AMS units/farm was 2 (interquartile range = 1; range = 1 to 8). Factors concerning labor were the most commonly cited reason by dairy producers for making the transition to the AMS; additional commonly cited factors were an improvement in lifestyle and human health. Number of cows fetched per AMS, or manually brought to the AMS if not milked voluntarily, was 4.7 ± 2.3 cows/AMS per day (8% of cows) for free traffic flow farms and 3.3 ± 1.8 cows/AMS per day (5% of cows) for guided traffic flow farms. Cow resting surface was significantly associated with prevalence of lameness and severe lameness. Farms with sand-bedded freestalls (17.2%) and bedded packs (17.4%) had significantly lower lameness prevalence (score ≥3 on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 = normal locomotion) than farms with mattress freestalls (30.5%), waterbeds (25.0%), and mattresses with access to pasture (22.6%). Farms with mattresses and access to pasture had similar lameness prevalence to farms with waterbeds, but were lower than farms with mattresses only. A somewhat similar result was found for severe lameness prevalence (score ≥4 on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 = normal locomotion); farms with sand-bedded freestalls (2.8%), bedded packs (0.0%), and mattress freestalls with access to pasture (1.5%) had significantly lower prevalence than farms with mattresses (7.1%) or waterbeds (10.8%). Severe hock lesion prevalence (score = 3 on a 1 to 3 scale, with 1 = normal, 3 = swelling) in herds with sand-bedded freestalls, waterbeds, and bedded packs were similar and significantly lower than the prevalence in mattress-based freestalls. Cows housed in sand-bedded freestalls had significantly lower prevalence of dirty cows (score = 3 or 3.5 on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 = clean) than those housed on mattresses and waterbeds, and had significantly lower prevalence of severely dirty cows (score = 4, 4.5 or 5 on a 1 to 5 scale, with 1 = clean) than all other housing systems except waterbeds, which was similar. Manure removal system (manual, automatic, or slatted floor) was significantly associated with prevalence of severely dirty cows; farms with manual scraping had lower prevalence of severely dirty cows than farms where alley scraping was practiced automatically or slatted floors were used. Dairy producers using AMS appeared to be successful with a variety of facility designs and management practices. Cow resting surface in AMS herds was associated with some animal health and welfare measurements.
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We thank all the dairy producers who participated in the study. In addition we thank Luis Espejo (St. Augustine, FL) for help with statistical analysis and Lucas Salfer (Dassel, MN) for collection of on-farm observations, cow scores, and producer questionnaire responses. We also thank David W. Kammel (University of Wisconsin, Biological Systems Engineering Department, Madison, WI) for his input on housing data collection, help with enrollment of Wisconsin AMS farms, and reading the manuscript draft. Justin Siewert was partially supported by a Department of Animal Science Fellowship (University of Minnesota) and the John Brandt Memorial Fund Scholarship (Land O'Lakes Inc., St. Paul, MN). This project was partially supported by Hatch Funds from the USDA National Institute of Food and Agriculture (Washington, DC).
- automatic milking
- robotic milking