New robot mows grass and feeds cows autonomously

The number of days it can spend on Canadian fields will be limited unless it can be turned into a Zamboni

Keeping Lely’s new robot that harvests and feeds fresh grass a secret was no longer an option for the company.

This is because the robot, named Exos, has moved onto a new developmental phase at testing farms in The Netherlands and it was bound to turn heads of anybody driving by.

So even though the Exos was not ready to go to market, Lely decided to show off what they were working on.

Carlo van Sonsbeek of Lely said the Exos is an electrically powered, four-wheel drive platform designed to harvest and feed fresh grass without operator interventions.

“First, it gets an assignment to go and get an amount of grass from a management system. It then drives through the field, starts cutting, loads the grass into the bunker and then drives into the barn and distributes grass in front of the cows,” van Sonsbeek said.

He said the Exos uses GPS to navigate while harvesting grass and when it’s travelling to and from the barn.

When it’s inside the barns, it uses a Lely system designed for the company’s Vector robot to distribute the feed at the feed fence.

The Exos operates 24 hours a day and can be programmed to feed when and how much the cows need to maximize performance.

This can help dairies set feeding times that best fit the cow’s needs instead of the needs of the people that feed the cows.

The Exos will join an ever-expanding line up of Lely autonomous robots that have helped to drastically change how dairy barns operate.

“The idea behind the robotics is not just to make robotics, it’s to eliminate repetitive work,” van Sonsbeek said.

“We have manure robots that clean the barn floor, we have a feed pusher that pushes the feed several times a day, and then you have the Vector system that is the autonomous feeding system — the mixer feeder robot that is also providing feed 24-7.”

The Exos is designed to operate in tandem with the Lely Vector automatic feeding system.

Once inside the barn it uses a Lely system designed for the company’s Vector feeding robot to distribute the grass at the bunks. | Lely photo

Van Sonsbeek said the biggest benefit the Exos can provide largely comes from the feeding of fresh grass, which is becoming popular in the Netherlands and in Europe but it is labour intensive.

Producers that use a zero-grazing system “cut grass and feed it into the barn and they do that throughout the season. The benefit in not having to ensile the grass, but feeding it fresh. Cows love it.”

He said when grass is ensiled or baled, there are losses during harvest, while the feed is conserved, and when cattle pick through it.

“You need sugar to get the pH down in the clamp. Depending on the time of year, but that loss will add up from 10 to 20 percent of your nutritional value. So when you feed the grass fresh, you get that part for free,” van Sonsbeek said.

“Feeding fresh grass in the barn saves you on buying extra concentrates. The protein comes directly from the field.”

Another benefit from the Exos robot for producers that use a front mower tractor and loader-wagon combination to harvest fresh grass is that the robot has a much lighter footprint.

“Our machine weighs about 3,000 kilograms empty, and we load around 1,000 kilogram of product. That leaves us with a very low weight and very soil-friendly approach,” van Sonsbeek said.

“We have about 0.8 bar (80 KPa) tire pressure, that’s soil friendly.”

He said the lower footprint enables the robot to get on the field earlier in the spring to start harvesting grass long before conventional grass-harvesting equipment can be used.

Even though the Exos robot offers considerable labour advantages, producers must keep a close eye on the grass growth stage to maximize the system.

The robot collects field data to help producers plan the robot’s missions, and it reports the weight of the material it’s harvested.

“You don’t want to feed your cows material which is too long. He (farmer) still has to monitor the field himself, he has to manage the system. That is where his time is,” van Sonsbeek said.

“It doesn’t make sense to feed very tall and long grass because they don’t like it.”

Instead of allowing the grass to reach a stage where it is typically cut for hay or silage, the fresh-grass feeding system is best used to harvest before grass starts producing stems for seed production.

“If you let the grass grow longer and you cut it you will see that the regrowth is taking a lot more time and taking a lot more energy from the plant. If you cut it shorter it still has a lot more energy inside and the regrowth is really fast,” van Sonsbeek said.

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