Dairy unit reboots with robotic revamp

Installing two milking robots has enabled one Shropshire-based family to establish a high-output dairy unit, despite the constraints of 1960's infrastructure. We visited the herd to find out more.

Robotic Milking
Robinsonss robots 720

Faced with delays with plans to expand and develop brand-new cow housing and infrastructure on a recently purchased dairy unit, one Shropshire-based dairying family had to reconsider its options. So, while waiting for the green light for the new-build project, the Robinsons decided to utilise the unit’s existing but dated infrastructure to start milking cows.

Like many producers with children ready to join the family business, Richard Robinson made the decision, in 2017, to expand his family’s existing dairy business and subsequently, in March 2019, acquired an additional dairy unit – Cotton Farm near Market Drayton, in Shropshire. Plans were soon in place to develop a 300-cow enterprise on a greenfield site at the unit, but the family’s project has been plagued with planning permission delays.

The move to milking robots

Richard farms in partnership with his mother Dorothy, with the help of his wife Isobelle and two grown-up sons, Henry and James. As well as the Cotton Farm site, the family continues to run a dairy herd and unit, based near Lichfield in Staffordshire. This comprises 240 conventionally-milked cows.

With the long-term building project at the new farm on hold, the Robinson family set about developing a dairy enterprise that would best utilise its existing 1960s infrastructure. Two Fullwood Packo milking robots were installed in January 2021 and an automated approach to milking is proving to be a success.

“Our future plans are based on automated milking systems because this is the approach our sons James and Henry want to take. It also sidesteps the difficulty we have in sourcing good labour to help run and manage the herd,” explains Richard. “When we get the go-ahead for the greenfield work, we will have 300 cows milked by six robots. In the meantime, developing the existing infrastructure at Cotton Farm has been a good stopgap. It has allowed us to start producing milk on the new site and test out a robotic system."

“Despite the constraints of older buildings and infrastructure, we have established a successful, high-output enterprise,” he says. “We started milking through the robots in February and they are currently milking 91 cows, with average daily yields at 33kg per cow. We are pleased with the results so far.”

Correcting the feeding curves

“We were pleasantly surprised at how straightforward it was to adapt the existing buildings at Cotton Farm to suit an automated approach,” says Richard. “We had to move feed barriers, replace cubicles, take out the old parlour and install the robots. With sound advice from our builders and Fullwood, everything went smoothly.”

The new unit was stocked with a mix of heifers and second-lactation cows from the existing Lichfield-based herd, and a small number of purchased cows. And while the cows settled in well, there were teething problems when it came to feeding.

“The default feed settings on the robot were too low, with the dairy nuts feeding out at a rate of just 6g per second,” explains Richard. The cows were unable to eat enough at each milking, so he took advice from ForFarmers’ Roger Marley and Clive Slawson and they tweaked the rate to 12g per second, which works much better.

“Ensuring the correct feeding curves were in place was also a challenge but, again, Roger and Clive were able to help with this,” adds Richard. The cows are now fed ForFarmers dairy concentrate through the robots, with a TMR comprising home-grown grass silage, maize silage, and a bespoke 27% protein ForFarmers blend fed down the feed barrier.

“Milk is supplied to Arla, so quality is important. With individual average daily yields as high as 36 litres, we have also included specialist feed buffers in the ration to help maintain high milk quality,” says Roger Marley. Cows are fed 8kg of concentrate through the robot during early lactation and after 100 days in milk move to a base feeding rate of maintenance plus 20 litres, with extra feed allocated according to yield. Ensuring cows leave their cubicles to eat and visit the robots is key to the success of any automated system, so Richard and his sons have put measures in place to keep the cows motivated.

Increasing the frequency of milkings

“We know it’s important cows achieve a high frequency of milkings, but we also know how much cows hate queuing and waiting to be milked,” says Richard’s eldest son Henry. “There is a loafing area adjacent to our two robots and we have made this a place where the cows want to go and are happy to wait.” Roger and Clive also recommended installing a cow brush in the holding area and troughs with warm water, which the cows really enjoy drinking. “We usually feed glucose to cows for the first 10 days of lactation via the robots, but if there are any cows that are a little hesitant to visit the robots, we will give a little glucose to these too, to encourage them in,” adds Henry.

The herd averages 2.6 milkings a day, with some cows visiting and being milked 3.3 times a day. The Robinsons are impressed with how well the cows move themselves around the unit.

Fine tuning

They hope the new development at Cotton Farm will get planning permission soon and construction can get underway at the start of 2022. The completed unit will comprise two new cow sheds, housing a total of 300 cows, milked by six robots.

“But, for now, we will continue to operate the current unit and carry on fine-tuning this system,” says Henry. “It is proving to be a success in its own right, but it has also given us the opportunity to learn. The whole robotic approach not only provides a lot of management data, but also gives us more time to spend on cow management. And we have used this extra time to focus on improving cow health and performance."

“As a result, as well as achieving strong yields, mastitis levels have fallen and cow fertility has improved. Average conception rate for first-calved heifers is now 38% and third-lactation cows are at 34%. An automated approach has worked well so far,” concludes Richard. “And we have every confidence that it will continue to deliver the results we want, once our new larger site is up and running.” |