ArticleVolume Number September 17, 2019

Is there one irresistible flavour that will draw cows to the milking robot?

Article Saveurs Gervais_vache intriguée

This article was written in cooperation with Julie Baillargeon, Agr., Knowledge transfer expert at Lactanet. 

Contrary to what one might think, it’s not so much the desire to be milked as the desire to eat that attracts cows to the robotic milker! The dairy feed industry would very much like to single out THE most appetizing concentrate or magic additive that would entice cows to be milked.

To that end, a team of researchers at Penn State University tested a number of different flavours: vanilla, thyme, anise, molasses, fenugreek, orange and honey.

The sevent different flavours tested by Penn State University researchers

How did researchers compare the flavours?

  • Number of cows: 16
  • Average number of days in milk: 197
  • Average milk yield: 41.5 kg/d
  • Average dry matter intake: 27.8 kg
  • Housing: tiestall barn
  • Diet: TMR (2/3 corn silage, 1/3 alfalfa haylage + concentrates)

The aim was to measure concentrate intake after the cows had already consumed a good part of their morning ration and so had less appetite. Accordingly, two hours after morning feeding, the TMR was removed and a wooden frame containing four choices of concentrate premixes was installed in front of each cow. Each feed bin contained 1 kg of concentrate premix, and the bins were left in place for only five minutes. The wooden frame was then removed, the TMR replaced in front of each cow, and the bins weighed to determine the quantities consumed.

The test was conducted over six consecutive days and the cows were not adapted to any of the flavours prior the start of the experiment. Eight different flavoured concentrate premixes were used: an unflavoured mix used as a control and seven other flavoured premixes. The concentrate mixes were distributed randomly in front of the cows and each cow was offered each flavour three times in different positions (left, right and center) over the six-day period. The concentrate premixes were not pelletized.

So do cows have a preference?

The results of the trial showed that there was really no difference between the control concentrate (no flavour) and the seven flavoured premixes. Nonetheless, some differences were noted between the different flavours. Anise and orange proved the least popular. The most well-liked flavour was vanilla, followed by fenugreek. So no clear-cut conclusion to the flavour debate.

Table 1. Average consumption of each flavoured concentrate premix within the five-minute period

  Control  Anise  Fenugreek  Honey  Molasses  Orange  Thyme  Vanilla 
Amount consumed (grams)

















Identical letters indicate that the results are identical from a statistical standpoint.

More research on taste required

Cows are known to have a highly developed sense of smell and the authors of this study believe that the scent of the flavour around the robot would be sufficient to entice the cow to visit the milker. It is not known however if the effect would be long-lasting. The general belief is that the effect would diminish over time, by that remains to be confirmed.

Another question to consider is whether cows’ flavour preferences remain the same even when their reproductive status changes. Likewise, do cows prefer specific flavours or rather specific taste categories (sweet versus spicy, for example)?

So many questions left to answer… and the magic flavour that will lure cows to the robot has yet to be identified!!


Harper M.T. et al. 2016. Short communication: Preference for flavored concentrate premixes by dairy cows. J. Dairy Sci. 99:6585–6589.

InFocus: Sweet, Bitter, Salty, Sour, Savory. Progressive Dairy, 2016