Robots add management flexibility without hitting herd’s milk yields

Major savings in relief milker costs and a more flexible lifestyle were both deciding factors when David Talbot made the transition to robotic milking last year. Farmers Guardian looks at the effect of the change on the business.

Just 10 months after moving away from the heavy commitment of three-times-a-day conventional milking, Lancashire farmer David Talbot is convinced he has made the right decision.

Mr Talbot, who farms at Lower Alston Farm, Ribchester, along with his father Clem, is, however, quick to say robotic milking systems will not suit all farmers or farm situations and considerable research needs to be done.

“We started looking at robots about two years ago, partly because a neighbouring farm had used robots for some time, and from what we saw at the Dairy Event,” he says.

“We then looked at 12 farms using robots, including a visit to Holland, and narrowed the systems down to two suppliers and looked for the best deal.”

He says there were a number of reasons for choosing a robotic system in the first place - firstly there were potential savings in labour costs, particularly for relief milking.

He also says full conversion from conventional to robotic systems is a learning curve for both farmers and cows and that it will take up to 18 months for the changeover to be fully complete.

The Talbots milk around 180 cows under the Riblee Holstein prefix and they hope the four newly-installed robots will allow them to build herd numbers to a little over the 200 mark.

Before installing the robots, the Talbots were milking three times a day through a 14:28 swingover parlour, which meant up to nine hours of milking each day.

Expansion

“Our existing milking parlour was 10 years old and was still worth good money.

“While we could perhaps have added another couple of units each side, there was simply no space for any further expansion.

“Even if we had added the extra units, we would have faced the same problem in about five years’ time,” says Mr Talbot.

“By selling the existing parlour, we are able to use the space for another 22 cubicles, which will allow us to milk 200 cows.

“Another factor was that I am still relatively young at 36 years of age, meaning I will have the full benefit of the robots.

“Our two sons, aged six and eight, are still too young to know if they want to work in farming. My father is 72 years old.”

Mr Talbot says the robotic systems means he can be much more flexible on how he uses his time; both for the family and in managing the cows.

“It does not mean we spend less time with the cows - in fact we can spend much more time managing them than before.

“However, it does mean that if I want to take some time off, the system can be left with just one person.

“Also there is far less stress on both people and cows than with a three-times-a-day milking regime.”

Spare capacity

The Talbots decided to install four robots, although three would have been sufficient.

“Strictly speaking we could have managed with three, working on one robot per 50 cows, but these would have been working at full capacity immediately.

“Deciding on four units instead of three provides us with spare capacity and will eventually cope with around 200 cows in milk.”

Six out of parlour feeders were also installed, along with a grazing gate, which are all linked up to the central computerised management system.

“We had two buildings with an open yard separating them. It was easy to cover the yard, enabling the four robots to be installed in the centre of the dairy housing, with a central area giving access to units and a new farm office above,” says Mr Talbot.

“Initially the robots were used as just out of parlour feeders for around a week. Cows were led to the robots and they soon realised there was food there, with heifers learning more quickly than the older cows.

Monitoring

“Then for two weeks we kept watch on the herd for 24 hours a day, making sure they went through the robots and scanned and milked them successfully.”

Mr Talbot says the transition was made easier as the herd had been used to three-times-a-day milking at eight hour intervals and ‘just tried to emulate those intervals through the robots’.

Working alongside Mr Talbot throughout the changeover, including looking at robotic systems, was Bill Hardman, technical manager for Dugdale Nutrition.

“Before the robots were installed, the herd average was running at about 10,500kg at 3.6 per cent fat and 3.08 per cent protein”, says Mr Hardman.

“David was using a semi-TMR feeding system, providing maintenance plus 25 litres milk outside the parlour and then feeding to yield in the parlour. When starting with the robots, we reduced the semi-TMR part of the ration to maintenance plus 20 litres and now feed concentrates to yield through both the robots and the out of parlour feeders.”

Two concentrates - 16 per cent and 20 per cent protein - are fed through the out of parlour feeders and robots, which Mr Talbot says provides flexibility to balance the requirement of each cow with its performance.

“Concentrate feed is automatically split between the robots and out of parlour feeders, with a minimum amount always available from the robots to attract cows in,” says Mr Talbot.

Cows receive a maximum of 14kg of concentrates per day, meeting the requirement of a typical cow giving 55kg of milk per day.

While Mr Talbot says one cow managed to give more than 70kg for a few weeks, the staler cows moving on to the robots were hit quite hard.

“They didn’t have the drive to enter the robots, so frequency of milking decreased and yields soon followed,” he says.

“Around 15 cows were prematurely dried off, but are coping fine after their next calving.”

However Mr Hardman says, on the whole, the cows have adapted well to the new system and freshly-calved cows are milking better than on three times a day milking.

Yields

“Overall, after nine months, yields are similar to those before the robots were introduced, which we would expect following three times a day milking.

“We expect yields to increase significantly this year, with more cows milking and expect a bigger increase, with someone changing from twice-a-day milking to robotic milking,” says Mr Hardman.

Mr Talbot is, however aware there will be lots of new challenges in the coming year.

“Grazing will no doubt bring fresh challenges,” he says.

“Giving individual cows more attention will hopefully ensure milk yields will continue to increase, but there is still work to be done in lots of areas, particularly fertility and feed efficiency.

“Really this year will be a period of consolidation, but with a contract giving us a little extra for our milk and the prospect of cheaper feed prices in the spring I feel there is a solid future for dairying.”

Costings

  • Bulk feed costs per cow: £102.08.
  • Margin per cow: £1,851.95.
  • Margin per litre: 18.78ppl.
  • Savings: Mr Talbot estimates robotic milking is saving around £1,200-£1,400 a month in relief milking and other labour costs related to three-times-a-day milking.
  • System costs: Fullwood say the typical cost of a four unit robotic system similar to Lower Alston, including associated cooling equipment would be around £350,000, but emphasises every farm situation is different.

Farm facts

  • History: the Talbot family came to Lower Alston Farm, Ribchester, as tenants in 1919 and went on to buy the farm
  • in 1948
  • Farm size: Lower Alston is 49ha (120 acres) of mainly free draining land over sand and gravel with a further 49ha (120 acres) a short distance away in the village. Grassland is mostly medium-term leys of high sugar grasses with 8ha (20 acres) of maize also grown.
  • The herd: Heifers are contract reared and the herd is all year round calving to provide a level supply to Wisemans.
  • Employees: one full-time.
  • Ration: Semi-TMR of 3.5kg blend, 1kg molasses, 0.3kg rumen protected fat, 0.5kg straw, 6kg brewers’ grains, 24kg of a combination of first and third cut silage, and 8kg maize silage. Concentrates fed at 0.39kg/litre.
  • Yields: Daily yield is 36.5kg per day, with an average of three visits to the robots per day. Herd average is 9,876litres at 3.72 per cent butterfat and 3.09 per cent protein.
  • Robots: Switch to robotic milking in March 2011 after around six years of three-times-a-day milking.

 

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