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Cowmen Comment: Tim Gibson "They tend to assume all robot systems are housed units"

Tim Gibson farms in Bedale, North Yorkshire, milking 180 cows with three Lely robots and the farm grows 140 acres of combinable crops. Tim also runs a separate dairy consultancy business from the farm.

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At the moment I have just one thing at the front of my mind. At the grand ‘old’ age of 35, I sit here counting down the last 10 days to having my hip replaced.


My father had both his hips done, my grandfather had both done twice, my aunt has had both of hers and all three of her sons have had at least one replaced. Had I been a Labrador, the hip score would be ‘put down at birth’.


The NHS said they could do nothing for 10 years until I was 45, and I should change my occupation. Anyway, all being well I should be about right for silaging, but I’m not so sure I want to be bouncing around on the tractor as much this year.


The past months have seen dairy farming in the news nearly every week and we seem to have had good public support for a fair return for our effort and investment. It is certainly reassuring to know at least the customer is keen we stay afloat.


For most of us there is not a massive amount we can do to change the price we are paid. I don’t care much for those saying we have to control costs as we have been doing that for over 10 years, and I haven’t seen any dairy farmers with excessive tendencies for posh scraper tractors or feeding bales of US alfalfa.


One way is to change the production profile or quality to maximise contract price. Another would be to increase output to offset lower income. I am supplying Paynes which has brought in an ‘A’ and ‘B’ price which deters any increase in supply. I have no problem with that as long as we are free to sell our B milk to another buyer and, come the end of quota, I see no real issue in doing that.


I have recently been looking at an ice cream venture. An opportunity to take over an established business and herd of robot-trained Channel Island cows came along. Sadly the timing has been wrong but it has been a very good exercise to do. Having to do ‘due diligence’ on another business to see how it fits with my own has made us really think outside the box and where we are going.


Doing a really good 10 to 15-year plan of the existing business, and working out what will be needed to be spent during that time just to keep things up-to-date, is a real eye opener. It has placed me at a crossroads of which way to go and what to do next. There is a lot of doom and gloom right now but I do think with it comes opportunity and potential. For instance my phone has been ringing like crazy for the last couple of weeks with people thinking of selling their robots as they may have to come out of milk.


There are some who have had notice from their milk buyers and they have to weigh up their options, and others who supply certain buyers and are concerned if they can carry on. On the other hand, for every call I have had about selling up, I have had opportunists calling me who want to expand more into milk. Some have aligned contracts and are still on 30+p, while others are expanding to produce more to maintain income levels. Robots offer a quick way into expanding and milking more cows alongside the existing herd. I also have several going into milk from beef or sheep who adhere to the old adage that going against the flow pays off.


I have been involved recently with setting up a national body of farmers with robotic milking systems. A small group formed after a meeting at the Livestock Event last year and has benefited from some EU funding won by RABDF to help farmers to collaborate. We have now established The Association of Robotic Milkers, which will be run as a non-profit organisation with the aim to support farmers with robots.


The group could look to market milk as coming from cows which are given the option when they are milked, almost a free range milk. There have been attempts by some groups to have a go at housed systems and mistakenly they tend to assume all robot systems are housed units and that all housed systems have robots.


We would welcome contact and anyone using a robotic system should contact Lucy Mellor at RABDF on 0845 458 2711 or myself tim@tim-gibson.co.uk to register your interest.

Farm facts

  • Farm size: 350 acres
  • Cows: 185
  • Milk: 8000 litres
  • Soil: Mostly stone and sand
  • Milk buyer Paynes Dairies.
  • Rainfall: 24ins
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