Robotic system strives for continual improvement

A drive to excel is what sets David and Bethan Jones apart when it comes to their robotic dairying operation at Hardwick Farm, just on the outskirts of Abergavenny in Monmouthshire, South Wales.

Robotic Milking
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One of the very first adopters of robots in Wales, the Jones family first started milking this way in March 2004, needing to move on from their six abreast parlour.

With a keen interest in dairy systems around the world, David saw a profitable future as either robotic milking or spring block calving, but without what he considered a sizeable grazing platform, two robots were installed and he is confident the correct decision was made.

Now, four Lely robots are in operation, with 260 cows milked through two A3s and two A5, with the third robot installed in 2018 and the fourth in 2022. Calving all-year-round, 30 cows are dry at any one time.

The herd is yielding 10,800 litres at 4.24% butterfat and 3.52% protein and David says they are aiming to make as much milk from forage as possible.

Currently, the Jones family is farming 800 acres across its Llanover and Coldbrook Estate unit alongside additional parcels of ground. Making this up is 350 acres of wheat and oilseed rape, 230 acres of maize and 220 acres of grass from which David says they try and make as much silage from as possible.

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David is the UK representative on the European Dairy Farmers’ Congress and he says, together with Bethan, he is able to take learnings from his travels across the world.

Having previously been in a buying group, the farm has recently returned to being a ForFarmers customer, largely due to the company’s appointment of Bas van Santen as UK Robotic Product Manager, who David got to know in his previous role at Lely.

Alongside Bas, David also makes use of independent nutritionist Richard Cooper, with back up from ForFarmers’ Ed Jones who produces the herd’s Visiolac reports.

Visiolac is one tool which ForFarmers account managers have at their disposal. Put simply, Visiolac, created by French manufacturer Valorex, takes the data from a raw milk sample and gives a large range of information on its fatty acid profile. It transforms this along with the herd’s milk production data into visual reports which becomes another key management tool.

The milking herd at the Hardwick are fed a PMR of maize and grass silage, caustic wheat and rape. An ‘off-the-shelf’ ForFarmers cake is fed in the robots which David says does a great job. Calves are fed their mother’s milk for the first five to six days of life, in part to take advantage of the cows’ rotavirus vaccination, to ensure antibodies are transmitted in this way.

They then go through a transition period and by 10 days old are fed by machine. Calves are on calf pellets, milk powder and ground straw and are vaccinated for pneumonia in autumn and winter. As they mature youngstock are fed straw and nuts and are eased onto a heifer TMR. The farm’s youngstock manager Charlotte has total autonomy to speak to the vet or nutritionist, order anything necessary and has total responsibility to take heifers to the stage that they move on to youngstock TMR.

He says: “We employ a dairy manager as well as youngstock and arable managers. We like to give them responsibility to make day-to-day decisions in their departments which we find really keeps them motivated and engaged.”

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Heifers are turned out as soon as they become pregnant and at the same time receive a lungworm vaccine. They calve down at 24 months of age at 85% of their mature body weight, being served at 385kg or 60% of mature bodyweight. David says he tries to get as much dry matter into the dry and transitions cows as possible and feeds 5kg ground straw daily. Transition cows also receive maize, rapemeal and 150g/head/day magnesium chloride flakes.

Operating under the Llanellen prefix, all dairy calves are registered with Holstein UK. The Jones family puts real emphasis on the herd’s genetic traits, particularly feed efficiency and Envirocow, an AHDB trait. Strong focus is put on the herd’s genetic potential, with genomic testing carried out across the milking herd using Zoetis Clarifide Plus, with samples sent to the USA.

The top 30% of the herd is put to black and white semen while the rest are put to named beef sires, whether native or continental. Bethan takes the lead on sire choice and suggests less dairy semen could be used as they have a lot of surplus heifers coming through which they will have to sell.

Heifers are sold through Sedgemoor market and beef calves are taken to one month of age before being offered at Monmouthshire Livestock Centre. David says by focusing on just rearing dairy calves, they can ensure the best job is done as possible for their future herd.

David says: “We have moved to a medium cow in stature as they were just getting too tall. We want good chest width, rump width and body depth to allow plenty of forage consumption. We are also working to increase the longevity of our cows to reduce replacement rates, aiming for six lactations while focusing on fertility and butterfat. We used to chase PLI but now we concentrate on Dairy Wellness Profit Index, as calculated by Zoetis.”

Teat length and position are very important at the Hardwick and they are aiming for the front teats to be slightly wider than the back to ensure efficient milking in the robot. Attention is paid to ligament scores and milking speed is also very important. If a cow is a slow milker, it won’t be put back to black and white semen.

The herd is in the top percentile for Envirocow but with a constant will to improve, David says he would like the herd to be in the top five per cent for every trait.

Animal comfort and welfare at the Hardwick is paramount. In the cubicle housing, a mixture of sand and mattresses with sawdust are made use of, with older cows utilising the sand cubicles for ultimate comfort. Cubicles are also currently being replaced in sections.

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David praises robotic systems for being kind to cows’ feet due to minimal standing times and being a Tesco producer, they have a real focus on mobility and lameness. The farm footbaths twice per week and David says he is pleased by the reduction in cases of sole ulcers in the herd.

He says: “Sole ulcers cost £500/case but since October 2021 we have experienced just one case. We also get less White Line disease than we did.” Mindful of their farm’s sustainability, the farm was in the Welsh Government Glastir Advance scheme for many years until it ended. Bethan explains the farm is home to 21km of hedgerow and actions are being taken to increase biodiversity.

“We don’t want to get much bigger but instead are working towards being as good and sustainable as possible in what we do. We have met lots of people over the years who would love to have the opportunity to farm. We appreciate how lucky we are to be able to farm. I try never to forget that.”

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