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Forecasting helps herd dynamics and move to robots

Starting a dairy unit from scratch on their farm in Wigtown, Newton Stewart, was a steep learning curve for David, Kay and Robert Templeton, but with ForFarmers key accounts manager Martin Helliwell on hand they have got off to a flying start.

The Holstein herd was founded in December 2020 on a greenfield site on the farm in Newton Stewart. The idea to move from beef to dairy production had been brewing for some time before David Templeton started to put a plan in motion in 2019. The 900 acres farmed by David, his wife Kay and his brother Robert had been home to 340 Limousin-cross suckler cows and 780 cross-bred ewes. However they felt that that the land type didn’t suit intensive beef production. 

“We farm on two sites, one of which is quite heavy clay the other is lighter,” he explains. “Although a lot of the clay land has been drained the cows were making a mess of it.” The farm did excel in producing high quality silage and grass though and he believed that dairying was the way forward. Historically the family had milked cows, but the herd went after a brucellosis outbreak some 45 years ago and the decision was made to go into beef production instead. 

David and Robert Templeton

Initial discussions about transitioning to a robotic system

“We’d always been interested in dairying but to be honest we didn’t fancy milking cows twice a day,” admits David. However the advances in dairy robotics prompted him to consider it more seriously in early 2019.

“We started asking questions, particularly whether we would be able to get a milk contract and were assured it was possible. From there we started looking at different robot companies. Lely is the most popular choice around here and I liked the whole package of them helping with design of the shed and all the back up.”

David was already in contact with ForFarmers’ Yvonne Shaw regarding his sheep flock and mentioned his dairying plans to her. “She put me in touch with Martin Helliwell and he came to see what we were planning to do. We then put it out to tender and went with ForFarmers because of their experience with robots as well as the expertise on the food and nutrition side. It was also very important that Martin and Lely were happy to work together.”

Moving the cows to the new robotic set up

By early 2020 plans were underway for the unit, which included a shed with cubicles for 300 cows and five Lely A5 Astronauts. However like many projects in 2020 there were numerous Covid-related delays. 

“The first start date we were working towards was August 1st, this then got delayed to October 1st and then finally December 2nd,” says David. The first batch of 115 cows plus 40 dry cows arrived from a local farm. “The cows were coming from a totally different environment with a traditional shed and conventional parlour to our new set up - robots and cubicles with water mattresses." 

“On Martin’s advice we arranged for our silage to be delivered to their former farm three weeks before and the ForFarmers ration about a fortnight later.” With their new feeding regime milk yields and solids started to increase before the cows were even in situ and once they’d made the move to Carslae they continued to improve. “Everything about their surroundings was new but the cows took to the robots so well. It was such a calm experience and by the second and third milking they were starting to really understand what was happening. It wasn’t what we expected!”

A further 60 in-calf heifers arrived around a month later and calved throughout the spring with further purchases of freshly calved heifers since then.

Templeton's new set up

Finding out the cow's potential

Meanwhile the nutrition was also doing what Martin had promised. “The cake had to produce the goods and both yields and solids came up,” says David. “Martin’s role has been really important - we wanted him to keep it simple but we have also needed to keep the bank manager happy.”

Initially it was impossible to tell what the cows’ potential was, explains Martin. “We started with an initial target of 30 litres but they cleared that within a week.” Yields currently sit at around 34 litres/cow/day at 4.1% butterfat and 3.33% protein.

Although volume increased the ration hasn’t changed since day one, which is better for rumen efficiency says Martin. He uses the Optifeed ration programme which is used across ForFarmers. It uses dry NIR forage analysis as a starting point for developing the ration. 

“The Templetons’ remit was to keep it simple so we fed their excellent home-grown silage with a blend, minerals and a mycotoxin binder. It is mixed together with some water to homogenise it and stop sorting.” The Templetons use a feed mixer wagon to mix and deliver the ration to the feed fence and the Lely Juno feed pushing robot ensures it is always kept within reach. The cows are also given cake in the robot according to yield and lactation stage.

Feeding the best nutrition

All dry cows are fed the same silage and straw mix, with Translac Advance in the last three weeks before calving, due to the success Martin has seen with this on other farms. “The calcium binding technology works an absolute treat,” he says. Meanwhile he also uses Kingshay Dairy Manager to calculate margins and forecasts.

“Feeding is the same all year, but it helps with planning for the seasons. It enables us to spot points where milk production will be light. It doesn’t change the feeding system but without knowing this we could be in a position where in January or February we are thinking something is wrong because milk production dips." It means David can plan in terms of cash flow and that we can continue to deliver the best nutrition we can. 

“Pre-empting how the dynamics of the herd will change is crucial to the feeding strategy. Modelling is an important part of the jigsaw. If you leave out that piece the picture isn’t complete.”

Lely controls

For more information

To learn more about our unique approach to robotic milking or for practical tips and guidance, whether you’re an existing robotic user or just weighing up your choices, our Robotic Milking Club is available to all .

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