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Striking the right balance

Adding maize silage to the dairy ration, making changes to concentrate use, and a switch to a lower-protein blend have all helped boost milk yields on one Lancashire-based dairy unit.

Perfecting the balance between out-of-robot and in-robot feeding is a significant challenge on any automated dairy unit. Feed cows too much down the barrier and the frequency of visits to milking robots drops. But overdo concentrate provision through the robots and producers find themselves underutilising home-grown forage sources, as well as facing a substantial increase in purchased-feed bills. 

Steven Holden, who manages a 110-cow herd at Hutton near Preston, has been practising this balancing act since installing robots on his unit in June 2019. Three years later – after tweaking ration compositions, altering feeding rates, and consulting with specialist advisers – he says he’s got things ‘just about right’. 

Steven Holden and his wife

Simplified system

“While we’ve constantly sought to refine our approach to feeding, it’s during the past 18 months that we’ve made significant improvements,” he explains. “We’ve simplified our in-robot feeding, and cut back the amount of blend we feed and its protein content. Around eight months ago we also started adding maize silage into the cows’ diet. 

“Overall, the results of these changes have been really positive. Daily milk yields were between 28 and 30 litres per cow, but now they are hitting between 35 and 36 litres, and this is while decreasing concentrate use and increasing milk from forage.” 

Steven farms 56 hectares in partnership with his wife Tracy. Their Holstein Friesian herd is milked using two Lely A5 robots. Milk is sold to Arla and the herd’s average yield is currently 10,000 litres, at 4.26% butterfat and 3.31% protein. Cows are visiting the robots an average of 3.3 times a day

Cows at feed barrier

Robotic route

Making the decision to install robots was a long-term process, and one that Steven started considering around six years ago. “At the time we had cow housing dating back to the 1970s and I wanted to update it,” he explains. “I’d always been interested in robots, so started looking into the feasibility and benefits of taking the robotic route at the same time as installing a new shed." 

“Finding and retaining reliable labour to milk cows is a challenge in our area and although our three children help out when they can, they all have full-time jobs elsewhere. These factors, coupled with 
the hope of improving herd efficiency and output, convinced us to go ahead and change to an automated approach. It offered the flexibility and security we needed for the future.”

The first cows were milked using robots in June 2019 and Steven is pleased he made the shift to automated milking. “I do miss milking the cows myself, but it’s been a positive move,” he says. “I run the day-to-day operations of the unit largely on my own, and this wouldn’t have been possible under the old management system.” 

When he first began working with robots, Steven soon realised that he was feeding too much at the barrier and needed to cut back to encourage cows to visit the robots. But he was also concerned about increasing his use of concentrates and blend. “We were struggling to consistently and economically hit daily yields of between 28 and 30 litres per cow,” he says. “I felt that we could get more out of the cows without becoming excessively reliant on concentrates. We produce plenty of good-quality grass silage on our unit and I was keen to make use of this as much as possible, along with other forage sources.”

So Steven contacted ForFarmers’ Marie Stephenson, who worked with him to develop a revised approach to feeding. She’s supported him and the herd ever since. “We’d been feeding different types of concentrate via the robots, to separate sections of the herd, so one of the first things we did was switch to feeding the whole herd with just one type of Optima high-performance nut,” Steven explains. “To increase the overall energy provision in the diet we also introduced maize silage into the ration we feed down the barrier, and switched to a lower-protein blend. This is fed at a rate of 3.5kg per cow per day compared to the 5.5kg fed previously.”

Lely robot

Balanced ration

The herd is now fed 25kg of grass silage at the barrier, along with 15kg of maize silage, 3.5kg of Intamix 18% blend, 4.5kg of Trafford Gold, plus minerals.

“We’ve used Trafford Gold for a long time and this, coupled with the maize silage, increases the ration’s palatability and fuels higher intakes,” says Steven. “I think we were feeding too much protein before. Now we are feeding lower rates of a lower-protein blend, and things seem to be about right. Overall the diet is nicely balanced, and the results speak for themselves.” Comparing data from February 2021 to February 2022, milk yields are up by 550 litres per cow, concentrate feed use is down by 250kg and milk yield from forage has increased by 1,345 litres. A total of 3,274 litres now comes from forage sources."

“In the future we’re not looking to increase cow numbers but hope to become even more efficient,” adds Steven. “As part of that we’re taking part in trials of the ForFarmers’ Robot Analysis Programme. This will analyse and benchmark our performance and provide some useful insights into how we can take our business forward.” 

Cow being milked by lely robot

For more information

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