Robotic milking represents a substantial investment for any farm, but benefits to cow health, welfare and production, coupled with the freeing up of precious labour hours have been plentiful for the Weatherup family.
Brian Weatherup and his father, Brian Snr, certainly have no regrets about moving to robotic milking. First impressions were favourable but now, exactly one year on, they have the facts to hand.
The 180 Holsteins at Parkend Farm, Dunfermline, were high yielding in any case, with an average 305-day yield of 10,400 litres. This has now increased to 12,500 litres with no adverse effects to report.
Mr Weatherup says: “We have also seen improvements in butter fat and protein. I thought there might have been a diluting effect as the yield went up but this has not been the case.
“I think this is because we are achieving better feed intakes, more tailored to individual cows, especially the high yielders.”
Conception rates have also improved.
Previously, the Parkend cows were fed a total mixed ration without supplementary feeding in the parlour, but now, in addition to this ration, the cows are fed as they are milked in one of the four recently installed Fullwood M2erlin robots.
These have replaced a 30:30 herringbone parlour which was decommissioned the day the robots started.
“The changeover was simpler than we had imagined,” says Mr Weatherup.
“It took three or four days before every cow was trained but there was no pushing or shoving, they just got used to it very quickly.
"If anything, heifers are easier to train as they have known nothing else. It is all a quiet and easy environment for the cows. My father, who is 63, has been dairying for 50 years and he says this is by far the most enjoyable way to milk cows.”
The Weatherups have noticed less bullying of heifers than there used to be while the herd waited in the gathering area. Now they take their turn to be milked quite naturally and once they are in the milking crate they are on their own and cannot be molested.
Providing four robots when arguably three could have done the job has proven a good investment, leading to less, if any, queuing for each machine.
Cows average 3.5 visits per day to the M2erlins, with the maximum set at five, and the robots identify each cow by an electronic pedometer. It is this self-selecting frequency of milking which is helping increase yield and cow health.
Mr Weatherup says: “With just my father and me on-farm, it was not feasible to move up to three times a day milking. A high-yielding cow giving 80kg per day had to carry 40kg in her udder into the parlour with twice a day milking.
"Now she might choose to be milked five times each day, meaning she is never carrying much more than 15kg. This is bound to make a big difference.”
The benefits for cow welfare and efficiency have become clear over the last year, but the main driver to making this ‘substantial investment’ was the difficulty in sourcing relief staff.
“I do not think this area is worse than anywhere else, but it is difficult to find staff. Brexit will not help and I think we will see far more robots before long.
"The machinery is reliable now and proven. It is 15 years since the first Fullwood robots were installed in Scotland and they are still working. A lot of the improvements are on the software side and upgrades are easy,” says Mr Weatherup.
He expects the machines to last as long as his herringbone parlour, which was installed in 2004 and is now operating with a new owner in Ireland.
The robots were installed by McCaskie Agriculture, Stirling, with depots throughout Scotland and the north of England.
“If any of the machines has a problem it alerts me on my mobile phone. If it is not something I can sort, then I can contact a McCaskie engineer and there is normally someone on the farm within 45 minutes,” says Mr Weatherup.
“We have not really had faults, apart from the normal teething problems.”
As to the central reason for installing the robots, the aim of freeing up time has certainly been met.
Mr Weatherup’s wife Gil says he has appreciated having time to spend with their six-month-old son Hunter and they reckon the daily workload has been reduced by a least five hours.
Much of this extra time is, however, still devoted to cows.
There is more time to trim feet for example. Lameness is already being prevented by the cows walking through a disinfectant bath every time they leave the robot, with the disinfectant changed automatically after 150 cow journeys.
It has also been far easier to accumulate and analyse the massive amount of data generated by the machines.
The Weatherups have been partnered by analysts and engineers from the Agri-EPI Centre from the outset. To accommodate them, a well-equipped and comfortable seminar room has been built on the viewing platform above the milking area.
The room has also come in handy for the school visits the farm hosts.
“We have 52 children from the local primary school coming next week, so that should be a busy day,” says Mr Weatherup.
Before then he has a trip to UK Dairy Expo in Carlisle to fit in, plus tidying up after the recent snowstorm.
Those five ‘saved hours’ per day are being put to good use.
Parkend Farm is one of the Agricultural Engineering Precision Innovation (Agri-EPI) centre’s first satellite farms in the UK. It is at the stage of gathering production data and running project activities to develop and validate new products and services.
The Agri-EPI centre is backed by Government. It brings together academic and commercial partners with expertise in engineering, technology, agriculture and food supply chains and is exploring the strategic needs of the agri-food sector.
This includes a programme of satellite farm roll-outs across the UK.
Dave Ross, CEO of Agri-EPI centre says: “The engagement of enthusiastic and technically-focused farmers, such as Brian Weatherup, is crucial in supporting the vision of understanding and reducing production variance in UK agriculture.”
The data from Parkend Farm’s robots will be used to understand the variations in performance between different cows in the herd.