Finding the balance to improve efficiency

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

Dairy Nutrition
Robotic Milking
7598 Stevenen Tracy Holden Mill Brow Fm Preston - ForFarmers UK

Steven Holden, who manages a 110-cow herd in Hutton, Preston, has been practicing this balancing act since installing robots in June 2019. Three years later and after tweaking ration compositions, altering feeding rates and consulting with specialist advisors, he feels he’s got things just about right.

Refining the feeding approach

“While we’ve constantly sought to refine our approach to feeding, it’s over the last year and a half that we’ve made significant improvements,” explains Steven. “We have simplified our in-robot feeding and cut back the amount of blend we feed and its protein content. And around eight months ago we started adding maize silage into the cows’ diet.

“Overall, the results of these changes have been really positive. Milk yields used to be around 28-30 litres per cow, per day, but now they are hitting 35- 36 litres. And all while decreasing concentrate use and increasing milk yields from forage.”

Steven farms in partnership with his wife, Tracy, and their Holstein Friesian herd is milked using two Lely A5 robots. All milk is supplied to Arla and average yields currently stand at 10,000 litres, with butterfat at 4.26% and protein at 3.31%. Cows are visiting the robots an average of 3.3 times a day.

Going robotic

The first cows were milked using robots in June 2019 and in the early days Steven soon realised that he was feeding too much at the barrier and needed to cut back to encourage cows to visit the robots. However, he was also concerned over increasing his use of concentrates and blend.

“We were struggling to consistently hit 28-30 litres per cow, per day and do so economically,” Steven says. “I felt that we could get more out of the cows without becoming over reliant on concentrates. We produce plenty of good quality grass silage on our 56 hectares and I was keen to utilise this as much as possible, along with other forage sources.”

Revising the feeding approach

Steven got in contact with ForFarmers Field Sales Manager, Marie Stephenson, who visited the farm, worked with Steven to come up with a revised approach to feeding and has supported the herd ever since.

“We’d been feeding different types of nut 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,” continues Steven.

“To increase the overall energy provision in the diet we also introduced maize silage into the ration fed 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.”

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 and some minerals.

7662 Lely Astrounaut Mill Brow Fm Preston

Introducing the Lely Juno

The addition of a Lely Juno automatic feed pusher a few months after the robots were installed has made a real difference Steven thinks; “We know cows respond well to fresh feed being put in front of them,” he says. “We feed on the outside of the shed and the Juno goes down alterative sides every other hour. Once it’s passed by we can begin to see cows drift over to that side to get access to the new feed.

It’s a night time that I think we really benefit. During the day I might have run down the sides pushing up feed but the Juno does it throughout the night as well. We can see the results on intakes in the morning,” he adds.

“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,” explains Steven. “I think we were feeding too much protein before. Now we are feeding lower rates of lower protein blend, things seem to be about right, and 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 - with a total of 3,274 litres now coming from forage sources.

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

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