Long Term Investment in Extension Strengthens Ontario's Dairy Industry

Extension work often requires vision and patience to see your work pay off. As far back as 2000, the OMAFRA Dairy Team had a vision of a progressive, flexible, innovative dairy industry in Ontario that would lead the way in the adoption of technology to improve producer lifestyle, animal health and welfare and production. The vision was to position the Ontario dairy industry as the North American leader in the adoption of robotic and precision dairy technology. The nature of dairy farming means change does not happen quickly. With significant capital investment in equipment, land, quota, and cows, large scale change and investment in new technology usually requires investment in a new barn as well as the equipment after careful research and thought.

The cost for a robotic milking system in the early 2000s was about $200,000. The price is about the same today but current models have more advanced technology and provide significantly more production and cow data for the producer.

Robotic milking: maximizing profits

In 2002, the Dairy Team began to make their vision a reality by partnering with industry to organize the First North American Conference on Robotic Milking. Attended by 400 dairy farmers and industry members, the conference brought experts on robotic milking to Ontario to present information to our producers and led to regulatory improvements. It also featured exhibits by robotic milker manufacturers so producers talk to the manufacturers directly and get demonstrations of the models available.

As adoption of robotic milking increased, resources were developed to help producers manage these systems also called automatic milking systems (AMS). With roughly 10% of robotic milkers in the early 2000s being removed, information was needed to address management issues. The dairy team developed significant website content for producers fostering the use of herd management software and data available from robots to improve profitability and cow welfare on dairy farms.

Robotic milking resources, relevant to Ontario dairy production, were developed and presented at meetings, workshops, reported in magazine articles and at tradeshows such as the Outdoor Farm Show. Farm tours were organized as robots began to be installed on Ontario farms so producers could learn from their peers. Applied research was conducted to understand what was working and what wasn't so solutions could be found and that knowledge spread to the industry.

Promoting new tools to improve cow welfare

In 2010, the OMAFRA Dairy Team again partnered with industry to deliver the First North American Conference on Precision Dairy Technologies. This conference, along with follow-up resources and events, promoted the adoption of precision technologies such as automatic calf feeders to improve the nutritional status of dairy calves. Electronic technology for individual animals is now able to track cow behaviour (activity) and rumen function which provides improved management opportunities to improve cow health and welfare.

Labour costs are a significant proportion of the cost of milk production and the availability of labour is often an issue for dairy farmers. Canadian dairy farms can achieve a 30% labour savings by adopting robotic technology, eliminating the need to be in the barn at fixed times seven days a week. This also makes the industry more attractive to younger producers.

In 2013, OMAFRA and the University of Guelph partnered through the Knowledge Translation and Transfer (KTT) program to conduct a survey of 33 automatic milking system herds across the province to find out information on management, production and nutrition. This research provided Ontario dairy producers information that was specific to their needs and benchmarked the state of the industry.

Encouraging investment in new technologies

From 1999, when the first robotic milker was installed on an Ontario dairy farm, roughly 175 to 200 of Ontario's 3,918 dairy farms now have robotic milkers. The industry has seen widespread adoption of activity monitors, rumen monitors, robotic feeders and other precision technologies that improve management and animal welfare. ADB staff, through their extension efforts, have helped to build sector knowledge and promote greater uptake of new technologies.

In a follow-up survey conducted after the 2010 First North American Conference on Precision Dairy Technologies, 100% of responding producers indicated they learned something at the conference that had or would influence the use of technologies on their farm. When asked: "What type of investment have you made or plan to make in precision dairy technologies since the conference?" 44% indicated they had or planned to invest $200,000 or more. As well, 22% indicated they had or planned to invest between $10,000 and $50,000.

Sixteen years after the OMAFRA Dairy Team started working to achieve its vision of a more progressive, flexible and innovative dairy industry, the sector has embraced significant changes to improve cow welfare, improve producer lifestyle and maximize production.

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Author: OMAFRA Staff
Creation Date: May 2017
Last Reviewed: May 2017