Just over a year ago, John Taylor read about the world’s only robotic rotary milking parlour. Today the former Gold Cup winning herd he manages is milked through the first installation in the UK. Ann Hardy reports.
When you are herd manager at Worthy Farm – more widely known as home of the Glastonbury Festival than for the farm’s 394 Holsteins – you are well accustomed to a little disruption.
But for John Taylor, who has been looking after the Somerset-based herd with his wife, Pam, for about 17 years, it is perhaps the latest technological advance which has represented the biggest upheaval to cope with of all.
It was little more than a year ago that Mr Taylor first read about the GEA DairyProQ in the farming press. He placed the article on the desk of the herd’s owner, Michael Eavis, and within a matter of days the two were off to Germany to see one of the world’s first installations of the batch-milking, robotic rotary in operation.
Impressed with what they saw and in need of an upgrade for their 25/50 swing-over parlour, the team took the plunge and signed up to the technology. Bravely ordering what would be the UK’s first installation of the DairyProQ and only the 10th in the world, the building work got under way immediately after the German trip.
“We came straight back from Germany in September 2015 and started digging the hole,” recalls Mr Taylor. “Then we had our first training with the parlour at Christmas followed by two or three days of computer training, and then we were up and running in summer 2016.”
Making the switch in August, Mr Taylor recalls the first day the cows had to go into the parlour.
“We just had to push everything in manually – literally one by one,” he says. “We started at 2pm and finished at 10.45pm at night – and yes, I did wonder what on earth we had done.”
Remarking that the solid metal sides encasing each of the rotary’s 36 robots were off-putting to some cows, he said they soon learned the process and now walk in unaided. “Within a couple of days a lot were walking in on their own – one or two needed guidance but the fresh heifers took to it really well,” he says.
However, half a dozen of the older cows which would not fit into the system were culled from the herd. “I think any switch from a herringbone to a rotary parlour would be difficult for some cows,” he adds. Choosing to make the switch at a single milking, Mr Taylor explains: “We did keep the old parlour for a couple of weeks and we could have used it, but we decided to move everything in one day.”
Adaptations to the new parlour also had to be made before installation, and the Worthy Farm model became the world’s first DairyProQ with in-parlour feeders. “This was one of the big issues for us,” says Mr Taylor. “We want to have grazing cows and grazing cows need flexibility – we need to be able to step up the feed if the weather is bad or grass is short.”
Each of the 36 stalls now incorporates a trough, and the herd’s Total Mixed Ration is supplemented by 0.4kg/litre of dairy cake over 32 litres. The adapted design is such that there is only one feed line for the whole parlour, keeping the process simple and with fewer parts to go wrong. In fact, despite early teething troubles Mr Taylor says the new parlour has been ‘mechanically brilliant’.
“Nothing in the parlour like the vacuum pump has ever broken down,” he says. “The compressor did break down one morning, but we had a spare. “Any other problems we’ve had have concerned the computer, but GEA were here within an hour when that went down and now we also have a spare,” he says.
Praising the service agreement, he says: “GEA will come out a couple of days a week to see what needs doing. They will call when they are passing rather than wait for an emergency.” Other small, niggling hitches have included cows kicking off units which was also an early problem and did cause some damage.
“But the beauty of the system is that the units can be reattached manually although if one robot is broken, the other 35 will function without it,” he explains.
Today, the cows are quickly settling into the system and look more at ease as they enter the stalls, although there are still signs of the stress the switch in parlour has caused. “I don’t think we realise quite how much stress a move like this causes,” says Mr Taylor.
“The herd was recording well over 12,000 litres and up to 13,000 when we won the Gold Cup [in 2014], but we’re currently on about 33 litres/day.
“We do have a lot of stale cows and have culled a few older cows, so I am confident production is going to pick up,” he says. Currently on twice-a-day milking and year-round calving, each revolution of the parlour is said to take 12 minutes, by which time the cows should be milked out.
“If a cow hasn’t milked out, we’ve chosen to auto-stop the table until she has finished,” he says. Plans are now in place to increase to three-times-a-day milking which, it is said, will cut the batch milking time to about eight minutes.
“We’re now easily milking 150 cows an hour and when we’re on three times this will increase to 200,” he says. With more staff required when three-times-a-day starts, he says this should be compensated by reducing each milking to just one person in the parlour.
“Once we have the shedding gates working we will probably just have one person in the parlour so we hope we’ll be able to move to three times with just the existing team,” he says.
With further building work still underway – including a chemical store and a servicing room where individual units can be repaired – the system is still a work in progress and the prospects for its future look good. “I’m sure it’s the right thing for the future and will make three times milking far easier,” says Mr Taylor.
“When we look back in six months’ time we will probably wonder what all the fuss was about.”
As a pioneer in adopting this cutting edge technology, there is no doubt the Somerset farm has further established its name.
The parlour might not reach the fame of the Glastonbury Pyramid but – as a UK-first and a world-first with feeders – the Glastonbury rotary parlour has already earned a place in dairy farming history!