Automatic feeding can boost cows’ feed conversion efficiencies – and therefore milk yields – considerably. Jane Brown visits the first commercial farmer in the UK to give it a go.
Feeding 350 dairy cows 10 times a day should be extremely time-consuming, but David Partridge has actually cut his labour demand by going fully automated. Last year he became the first commercial dairy farmer to install a GEA Mullerup automatic feeder, and noticed an immediate jump in milk yields as a result.
“I am getting older and do not want to be milking forever, plus getting good labour is a problem,” he says. “We were milking three-times-a-day and feeding a total mixed ration once-a-day, which we pushed up four-times-a-day – now we just have to load the hoppers and the machine does the rest.”
Mr Partridge has been milking at Ennerleigh Farm, Tiverton, Devon, for 31 years, having started farming 14 years previously with £1,000 to buy 15 cows and rent some ground. He now owns 73ha (180 acres) and rents a further 291ha (719 acres), of which, about 162ha (400 acres) is pasture. The rest is in a rotation of wheat, barley, maize, hybrid rye and triticale.
Cows are housed and calve all year round, with just the youngstock being grazed. Mr Partridge castrates and finishes all the male calves intensively, and also fattens any beef cross-breds and barreners.
Following a visit to see different automatic feeders on farms in Sweden, Mr Partridge built a new cubicle shed alongside an existing shed, to house all of the milking and dry cows together. He converted the old barrier feeder into cubicles and installed raised feeders with a monorail-type system on which the feed distributor operates.
Mr Partridge’s son, Clive, fills three bunkers with grass silage, maize silage and wholecrop cereals once-a-day, with three silos storing the blend. The computer is programmed to mix a precise milking ration comprising 18kg maize silage and wholecrop, 22kg grass silage, 0.25kg straw, 1kg molasses, 6.8kg blend and 0.27kg minerals. Fresh cows also get 200ml of propylene glycol to reduce the risk of ketosis, boosting energy and improving body condition.
“It’s the same ration we were feeding in the mixer wagon, but it is extremely accurate which minimises waste,” says Mr Partridge. The machine can mix different rations for the dry cows and other groups, although he now runs all of the milking cows in a single group.
“We used to have high, low and mid-yielding groups and we lost five litres every time we moved cows between groups. Now they all run together and we never get any bullying at all.”
Because cows are fed little and often they do not sort through the feed, and do not rush to secure barrier space either. That means Mr Partridge can reduce the feeder space to 28cm (11in) per cow compared to a recommended 76cm (2ft 6in) with conventional feeders.
The carrier takes about 15 minutes to distribute the feed around the shed, returning to top up with the appropriate ration. It can feed out both left and right for different groups either side of the feed trough, and will stop if it bumps into a cow.
“We hardly ever need to clean out the troughs – if we do get any leftover feed it goes to the youngstock, but we can adjust the quantities instantly on the computer so can feed extremely accurately,” says Mr Partridge.
One of the main problems with once-a-day feeding is the pH of the cow’s rumen can fluctuate, causing sub-acute rumen acidosis. Regular feeding eliminates this fluctuation, with resulting benefits to cow health and fertility.
As well as the automatic feeder, Mr Partridge also wanted to install robotic milking machines, so the cows could roam around the 220x200ft shed and milk when they wanted. However, there was a two month gap between finishing the automatic feeder and installing the robotic milkers – and that was the best two months of his career.
“We were already milking three-times-a-day, and in the first 14 days of swapping to the automatic feeder yields increased by 14 per cent,” he says. “After the first month our feed specialist did some costings and found we were getting more milk per kilogram of feed, saving £2,500 a month.”
According to GEA’s Anthony Andrew, automatic feeding should boost yields by 10 per cent, so an immediate 14 per cent jump was extremely good. “There are a lot of automatic feeders used on the continent,” he says. “Based on a retail price of about £175,000 the payback period should be less than two years.”
Unfortunately, the switch to robotic milking knocked the cows’ yields back, and ongoing difficulties with some of the software means they have yet to fully recover. “The best cows are milking up to four times a day and giving 60 litres, but the switch to robotic milkers hasn’t been as easy as we’d imagined – unlike the automatic feeding which the cows took to immediately,” says Mr Partridge.
“One of the benefits we have seen is that the cows milk for longer – they’re still giving 30 litres a day when they’re drying off.”
Sheds are fitted with one-way gates, and the herdsmen take some time to show fresh calvers around the house and robots so they know where to go before they join the main milking group. The cows are fed 2.75kg of a 19 per cent protein blend while being milked, with high yielders topped up with up to 10kg of a 16 per cent blend. “The system monitors when the cows are milked and automatic gates ensure they are directed to the robots or straight through to the main shed as appropriate.”
Cows are bedded on mattresses with sawdust and lime, which are cleaned and topped up every other day, while transition cows and sick cows have their own individual pens. “We have automatic scrapers and I raised every second row of roof panels by 43cm (1ft 5in) to improve the ventilation,” says Mr Partridge. “We also have two roof fans and are experimenting with blocking off the roof lights as they can create hot spots.”
The gate system includes an automatic footbath, through which the cows are taken once-a-day, while activity monitors help to identify cows that are in heat. “If the computer thinks a cow is in heat it will direct her into a different part of the shed after milking, so we can easily find her.”
Mr Partridge uses ABS’s Reproductive Management System (RMS) to inseminate the cows, choosing bulls based on their strength, legs and feet. “Years ago we bred for milk but they couldn’t walk well, so now we select on type,” he says. He also runs a stock Holstein bull with his heifers, with Hereford and Aberdeen-Angus bulls as sweepers.
He says: “We calve heifers from two years onwards and take the calves off as soon as possible. We make sure they have colostrum, and then put them into individual pens where they get milk powder and surplus milk twice-a-day.
“We wean them at six to eight weeks old and turn them out to grass, depending on the conditions.”
Mr Partridge takes three to four cuts of silage, and will soon be building two new clamps adjacent to the feed bunkers. “At the moment they’re over the other side of farmyard. It used to take us two-and-a-half hours to feed the cows – now it is 20 minutes. We use less diesel as well, and have installed solar panels to reduce our electricity costs.”
The mixer wagon is still used for the fattening stock, which are typically finished at 20-24 months old and sold through a local dealer. Far-off dry cows also receive a TMR and are no longer grazed to reduce calving complications. “Cows like consistency – we had problems with retained placentas when they were grazing so now we keep them in,” says Mr Partridge.
“With the automatic feeding and milking we have a lot more time to spend looking after the cows’ needs. And it’s an easier life for us too – we’re not constantly rushing around trying to get the next job done.”