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Dairy special: Making the switch to a robotic system

Making the transition from conventional to robotic milking may seem daunting, but with planning and budgeting it can prove beneficial for all aspects of a dairy enterprise, as one family found out.


Charlotte Cunningham reports...

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Dairy special: Making the switch to a robotic system

Robotic milking systems have been gaining traction in the dairy industry in recent years due to their ability to ease pressures on labour.


What is more, as the technology has progressed so have the benefits, and today these systems are proving to be advantageous across many areas – from efficiencies to yield.




However, making the transition from conventional to robotic milking requires a lot of planning and thought to ensure it is successful, considering everything from nutrition and feeding to breeding and barn design.


After making the decision to venture into robots in 2012, the Reed family, France Farm, Exeter, Devon, is proof of how successful that transition can be when planned effectively.

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WITH a desire to expand and grow the business, the family realised they needed to invest in the milking equipment.


So they began working closely with Douglas Green Consulting to look at which option would be the best for both the current and future business.


They began by carrying out a strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats analysis to evaluate the current position of the business and establish where they hoped to be.


This revealed that while the Reeds were running a good business with a very strong milk buyer, they were held back by poor facilities – the existing parlour – which made it an unattractive prospect for the next generation to take over.


Consultant Douglas Green says: “With a desire to expand, we quickly realised that continuing to milk in the original parlour was a no-go.”




After considering factors like increased labour requirements, they decided that transitioning to a robot system was the way forward and realised the best way to do this was by building a completely new shed to house three robotic milkers.


The Reeds put in place a fiveyear plan to support the required borrowing, considering the annual budget, desired milestones, profits achieved to date, staffing and facilities, as well as what could be done to make the business more attractive to the next generation.


“Each year of the five-year plan was broken down into profit, cash and capital to ensure those milestones could be met,” says Mr Green. “The project was monitored monthly to ensure everything was staying on target.”


Careful planning meant the family came in exactly on budget at £389,000 and have seen an increase in milk production of 25 per cent to just over two million litres a year. Constant monitoring and attention to detail have also decreased costs of production from 29.12p/litre pre-robots to 26.12ppl now (before depreciation).


Investing in a robot system can undoubtedly be costly, so it is important to ensure all those involved in the business are fully on board before spending, he adds.



MOVING from a grass-based system to a more intensive one also meant re-thinking the farm’s breeding strategy to produce stronger, higher yielding cows.


The family worked closely with Semex to source the best genetics for their system.


Harry Hawkins, sales representative at Semex, says: “A cow suited to a grazing system will be totally different to one that performs well in an intensive, indoor set-up.


“At the farm we are aiming to produce big, strong, powerful cows with great width.


“You need to be selecting something capable of a high feed intake – the more that goes in, generally, the more that will come out.”


Using about 75 per cent sexed semen, the farm has a 35 to 40 per cent conception rate, calving allyear-round with an average calving index of about 400 days and the milk yield has increased from 9,000 litres to 11,500 litres in three years, he adds.

Harry Hawkins
Harry Hawkins



WHEN moving to an indoor robotic system, the design and layout of the shed is key to the success of the technology.


But while the Reeds invested in a new building, making the switch to a robotic system does not always mean a new shed is needed, says Alistair Cummings, project manager at Lely.


“It is achievable in a building as long as you are prepared to do things like moving cubicles and changing the feed fence,” he says.


“It is all about creating an environment where cows can show natural behaviour.”




According to Mr Cummings, the layout needs to be logical, safe for workers and allow easy handling of cows.


“Free movement is essential and means giving the cows free options to eat, lie down, drink and socialise whenever they like,” he adds.


Installing automated daylight systems was also something the Reeds did to encourage higher levels of milk production.


“Lighting systems provide 16 hours of daylight and then at 10pm, red lights come on and give them six hours of complete darkness as cows cannot see red light,” says Mr Cummings.


Airflow is also a very important factor, he adds.


“Most of our weather comes from the south west, so on a new shed it is worth considering positioning it sideways to this direction,” he adds. “It is also essential to have an open ridge system to create a draught through the shed.”




One of the benefits of the robotic system is the increased lying time per cow due to not waiting to be milked at either end of the day.


“At this farm, we have created an additional five hours of lying time for every cow,” says Mr Cummings.


“With that in mind, optimising accommodation, with the best type of bedding, is very important.”



THE family decided to keep the herd housed all-year-round and put a greater focus on diet and forage quality to push yields.


Minimising dead grass carry over from autumn and optimising cutting date have all helped to push this quality forage and increase ME value, resulting in a 3ppl feed cost saving.


Janice Radford (pictured), Douglas Green Consulting, says: “Before the robots we were feeding for 30 litres plus maintenance but now the diet feeds for 26 litres plus maintenance.


“This has been reduced due to the number of visits the cows are making to the robots, as they are getting frequent small amounts of concentrate up to 10.5kg.”


Before calving, transition cows are fed maize silage, chopped straw, grass silage, a protein blend, magnesium flakes, dry cow minerals and urea.


“We chop the straw before it goes through the mixer wagon - as this increases intake,” says Ms Radford. “Before, intake levels were 4kg per day, but by chopping straw to 30mm that has increased to 5kg.”


Chopping the straw has also reduced the mixing time and fuel cost, as well as minimising the risk of health issues such as retained cleansing and milk fever, she adds.


“For these sorts of animals, it is absolutely critical to make sure everything that goes into the ration is top quality,” she says.


“You are what you eat, and the benefits of high quality will always be evident in either milk production or fertility.”

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