On many robotic dairy units, the question of how best to utilise fresh grazed grass, or whether it’s even practical to graze at all, is a common one. But for Nick Eccles, whose family manages a 180-cow pedigree Holstein herd in Preston, Lancashire, providing fresh grass to cows was never in doubt. It was just how the grass got in front of the cows that needed rethinking. “We are constantly looking at ways to increase feed efficiency, improve profit margins and maximise our use of home-grown forage,” explains Nick. “When we milked conventionally, we’d always grazed the cows and wanted to carry on utilising fresh grass when our unit went robotic. Zero-grazing seemed like the most effective alternative to grazing, and it’s proven to be a big success.”
Nick farms in partnership with his brother Chris, father Anthony and mother Christine, on their 280-hectare unit. Cows are milked using three Lely A5 robots, running alongside a Lely Juno feed pusher and Discovery scraper. All milk is supplied to Yew Tree Dairies with current yields standing at an average of 11,000 litres, at 4.00% butterfat and 3.30% protein. The Eccles family made the switch to robots three years ago, with the first cows being milked by their Lely A5s in January 2019.
“At the time we needed to replace our 25-year-old conventional parlour and old cow sheds, so we saw it as a good opportunity to invest in an automated setup,” says Nick. “Our hope was that going robotic would improve herd efficiency and productivity. We wanted to get a third milking out of the cows, but knew there wasn’t the labour available for us to do this in a conventional system.”
Cows are now milked an average of three times a day through the robots and Nick has enjoyed taking a more data-driven approach to cow management.
“The amount of information the robots provide is fantastic,” explains Nick. “I am constantly reviewing management data and systems, to help us be more targeted with feed use. “One of the tools I find particularly useful is the Concentrate Optimiser programme, which is built into the Lely robotic programme.”
“We feed an 18% protein nut through the robots. After 120 days in milk and once a cow is confirmed in-calf, we activate the Concentrate Optimiser. This gradually lowers concentrate feeding rates to the cow until the robot detects a drop in milk yield. It then automatically brings feeding levels back up a bit and holds them there. It’s a great tool and helps reduce concentrate use without impacting yields.”
During the autumn and winter cows are fed 14kgDM of grass silage, which is topped up with 5.2kg of a 25% protein blend.
“We then aim to provide cows with zero-grazed grass for six months of the year, starting from April 1,” continues Nick. “During this period, we drop blend provision down to 4.7kg per day, and some of the silage in the ration is replaced with fresh grass.” Grass is cut and carried to cows twice a day and grass is sampled every two weeks. This allows Nick to balance the ration according to grass quality, topping up fresh grass with blend and grass silage to meet cows’ full nutritional requirements.
“Running a zero-grazing approach gives us much more control of the overall diet,” explains Nick. “It’s also a more efficient method of utilising fresh grass compared to grazing. By cutting and carrying, we make sure that every blade of grass in a field is utilised. Cows are currently averaging 4,000 litres of milk from forage and this success is largely due to our zero-grazing system.”
Nick spends a lot of time analysing the data the robots provide and is always on the lookout for new ways to interrogate it and use the information to guide management decisions.
“We’ve recently started working with ForFarmers’ Emma Moore and she’s been extremely helpful pulling together costings and working on ration formulations to try and help us further improve feed utilisation and profit margins,” says Nick. “She has also introduced us to ForFarmers’ Robot Analysis Programme, which is a powerful analytical tool.”
As part of the programme, real-time data is collected from milking robots. This is then remotely accessed by ForFarmers’ staff who can analyse the data and recommend changes to robot settings, nutrition, and animal management, to maximise both robot and cow performance.
“Using the system, Emma was able to identify a group of cows in our herd with increased robot refusal rates,” says Nick. “The groups responsible were all third-lactation cows, 60 days into their current lactation. Once identified, we felt they might be a little short on energy and increased their concentrate provision accordingly.
“It’s a good example of how the programme can help to identify specific groups of cows, which can then be targeted with specific interventions to improve performance. It is also reassuring to know that another pair of eyes is looking at the data and highlighting potential problems.” Overall, the Eccles are pleased with how their herd has developed and they will continue to push for greater efficiency.
“Our yields have increased from an average of 27 litres per cow per day to 36 litres, in the space of three years,” concludes Nick. “And all while improving our margins over purchased feed, which currently stands at around 30.18ppl. It’s great progress and we’re looking to drive things even further forward and improve our efficiency in the future.”