Successfully transitioning to an automated dairy system

Many conventional dairy businesses are now opting to make the switch to automated milking systems. And while this move has the potential to drive cow productivity, to reap the rewards, the transition process needs to be managed carefully. For Somerset based dairy farmers, John and Ian Chapman, successfully navigating this change has resulted in dramatic improvements in their cow’s fertility levels and milk yields.

Robotic Milking
Cows at Chapman

“We had been considering switching to robots for years, but finally took the plunge and installed two new Lely robots in September 2020,” explains John, who runs RS Chapman and Sons in partnership with his cousin, Ian Chapman, as well as his dad, and uncle. “The difference the robots have made can’t be underestimated, with yields set to increase from 8,500 litres to 10,500 litres in the space of just 12 months. And with more time to spend with the cows and robots providing quality management data, cow fertility has also shot up. Our calving interval has dropped from 415 to 383 days, first service conception rates are 56% and our 100-day pregnancy rate is 83%.

“But while these results are great, transitioning to an automated system isn’t an ‘easy fix’. Ian and I have sought out specialist advice and have put a lot of effort into making sure the transition ran smoothly.”

RS Chapman and Sons is a mixed farming enterprise based in Chillington, near Ilminster, Somerset, that incorporates a 500-acre mix of arable crops – including wheat, barley, fodder beet, beans, and maize – and 400 acres of grass. Sheep House Farm is home to the robotic dairy, with 120 cows currently going through the robots, currently achieving average yields of 36 litres a day, at 4.14% butterfat and 3.28% protein. All milk is supplied to local cheese makers, Barbers.

Early stages of transition

“Alan Cheffey, our herd manager, had done a great job of keeping everything going under the old system, but we both knew we weren’t getting the most from the cows,” continues John. “Our herringbone parlour had come to the end of its working life, the dairy’s infrastructure needed updating and we have difficulties sourcing reliable farm labour – so updating to an automated system was our best option.”

The first day of milking with the robots was 22nd September 2020, but the three days prior to this was spent getting the cows accustomed to visiting the robots.

“After milking in the parlour, we would feed them a bit of cake through the robots, and soon enough they would happily head into the robots,” says Alan. “When we started milking via the robots, the cows were used to the new environment and hardly noticed the automatic units."

“The first week of robotic milking was tiring as we worked in shifts, 24/7, to ensure that cows were moving between the robots, feeding area and cubicles. Establishing this ‘flow’ was vital, so we split the herd into two groups, with one penned in the milking area while the other was in the feeding and cubicle area. We then rotated these groups every three hours, day and night.”

As well as the new robots, the Chapman’s also installed a Lely automatic scraper and robotic routing system. This system is programmed to allow mid and late lactation cows to access grass during the day, across two sperate grazing sessions.

Balanced diet

John and Alan knew that the cow’s diet needed to be configured to suit a robotic system and sought advice from ForFarmers’ nutritionist, Dave Hinkins.

“The key thing in a robotic system is to make sure that the out-of-robot feed is dense, with a small volume providing plenty of high-quality nutrition,” explains Dave. “If it’s not dense enough, cows eat too much, get sluggish and won’t visit the robots as often as they should."

“The temptation is also to become over reliant on feeding through the robots to drive yield. But carefully complimenting in-robots feeding with what you feed outside will actually result in the most dramatic improvements in yields and in the most cost-efficient manner. We have formulated an out-of-robot ration that can ‘stand on its own two feet’ in terms of quality and performance - and one that is largely based on the high-quality grass and maize that the farm produces.”

The current outside ration consists of 50/50 grass and maize silage, mixed with 5kg of a soya-free blend, that incorporates the farm’s home-grown cereals. ForFarmers’ robot specific 18% dairy compound is fed through the robots, along with additional blend, with the feeding rate set to a maximum of 10kg, per cow, per day. This outside delivers between M+27 and M+29, providing a total of 27kg DM.

Increasing milk from forage

“The dairy currently produces 40% of its milk from forage, but the aim is to increase this to 50%, while also pushing milk yields,” says Dave. “Our most recent silage results put first cut at 11.0 ME, third cut at 11.1 ME and maize silage producing 11.9 ME with 75g/kg crude protein – so we are on the right track in terms of forage performance. Regular dry NIR silage sampling is used to help guide diet decision making and it is an incredibly accurate and useful tool.”

Looking to the future

Both John and Ian have been pleased with how well the cows have settled into a robotic system, with cows now milking on average 2.7 times a day.

“Obviously the 2,000-litre increase in yield is the big benefit, but the robots have also made a massive difference to day-to-day cow management,” concludes Alan. “While I don’t have more ‘free time’ what I do have is time away from the milking parlour and I can spend this checking on the cows, assessing the data from the Lely robots and doing all the jobs I need to be doing to help maximise cow comfort and performance.”