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Robots offer improved feed efficiency

Moving to robotic milking more than a decade ago has helped one Shropshire-based herd increase milk output while, at the same time, reducing cow numbers and labour requirements.

A desire to move away from a low-input-low-output system towards higher profitability, left one small Shropshire-based producer faced with a dilemma. At that time, back in 2008, increasing outputs requiring in turn employing full-time labour, which would require more cows to justify the costs. But with limited acreage, supporting a larger herd and supplying enough forage would be a challenge. 

This led fourth-generation producer Steve Annandale to investigate alternative options for improving performance. He explored the idea of installing a robotic milking system and was drawn to its ability to drive yields and profitability, without the need for additional labour

Steve Annandale

Adjusting to robots

So, settling on a Lely Astronaut, he set about changing his system to incorporate a robot in March 2009. “Before installing the robot we were milking around 100 cows,” explains Steve. “But to accommodate the robot, and ensure it was working efficiently, we had to reduce the size of the milking herd to 71 cows. This was daunting at first, but eventually the herd started to produce more milk than it had before the robot arrived. “And in November 2020 an additional robot was installed. We have capacity for 120 milkers and we’ll work on increasing cow numbers by breeding our own replacements.”

The Holstein Friesian herd is averaging 11,500 litres. Cows are milked, on average, 3.6 times per cow per day and daily yields average 40kg. Milk is sold to Muller. The robotic system means the herd is housed all year round, so Steve works hard to maximise utilisation of home-grown forage – both maize and grass silage. Installation of a new silage clamp allows him to take four cuts of grass silage each year, as opposed to two large cuts, and preservation with silage inoculants has helped improve aerobic stability. Yield from forage is increasing, currently standing at 2,600 litres (12 litres per day), with a target of 4,000 litres.  

Improved production

“Since using the robots milking has become much more consistent, and installing the second robot has really helped us drive towards those higher outputs. We are continuing to work towards increasing milk solids and, thanks to the new silage clamp, we are also focusing on producing more milk from forage.”

A number of factors have also contributed to improved production since the move to robots. “Tailoring the ration plays a huge role in getting the most out of the cows,” says Steve. “Feed can be optimised to suit each cow’s specific needs in order to increase yields. The switch from ‘whole herd’ to ‘individual cow’ thinking has helped to ensure we are maximising performance from each animal.

“But we have also considered the herd as a whole, looking to continually improve genetics to breed cows that can meet our production targets. Dry-cow management is also important. We have built a specialist shed and now feed TRANSLAC Advance nuts to support dry cows through transition.  

Steve's cows

Regular reports

Steve adds: “The robots produce a lot of data, and we run regular reports to monitor how the cows are performing. This allows us to focus on the cows who aren’t performing as well as they should, and use the data to make informed decisions about how to improve health and yields. By boosting the performance of lower performing cows, we are able to lift the performance of the whole herd.”

More specifically, he looks at cows whose feed intake and number of daily visits to the robot have dropped. “We also look at time spent ruminating, weight changes and any fluctuations in milk production, such as daily yield and quality of individual quarters. Monitoring these metrics gives us a good idea of when a cow is starting to ‘fall behind’ the rest of the herd and indicates a potential problem we need to look at.”

Another significant change since the installation of the robot has been how Steve spends his time managing the herd. “We are managing our cows differently. Time previously spent in the milking parlour is now used looking at data and observing cows in the shed. At first, the figures and information can be overwhelming. But once you understand what the data means, it can benefit herd management. We may not necessarily have more free time, but we certainly have more flexibility and are able to better target the use of our time.”

Specialised nutrition

Following some initial teething problems with the system, Steve began working with ForFarmers’ robotic milking specialist Clive Slawson, in August 2021, to make sure cow health and nutrition was supporting the business’ aim to improve herd health and higher margins. The herd is fed a ration comprising grass and maize silage, plus a forage-balancing blend, which supplies maintenance plus 27 litres. Milkers are also fed a specific ForFarmers robot ration, through the robot.

“Steve’s cows have high genetic milk yield potential,” says Clive. “The diet must keep up with them and they must be fed a carefully balanced and consistent ration. In robotic milking systems, feeding is crucial to success. If any part of the ration is not balanced, the cows will vote with their feet and choose not to go to the robot to be milked.”

“The basal ration must meet the nutritional requirements of high-yielding cows,” he adds. “Then you can formulate a ration for the robot, which meets the nutritional requirement per litre. This creates a strong foundation, allowing each building block of feed to add to the 60-litre yields the cows are achieving, without compromising on cow health and fertility.” Careful analysis of the data provided by the robots can help to spot any potential issues earlier, and allows time to address them quickly and before they become bigger problems. 

“We pay particular attention to outlying cows, which are not keeping up with the rest of the herd,” Clive says. “Looking closely at individual cows who are not performing, as well as the rest of the herd, and addressing any issues improves overall efficiency.” 

Steve and Clive

For more information

For more information about our range of robotic milking compounds or for advice on transitioning or improving your efficiency with robots please speak to your local ForFarmers Account Manager or send us an online enquiry:

Contact a Robotic Milking Specialist