The installation of four robotic milkers has seen a marked increase in fertility and production for one Cumbrian family. Louise Hartley reports.
The robot building comprises an extended shed, originally used for heifers and dry cows and a second new building built alongside it.
When brothers Stephen and Richard Brough and Ste-phen’s son Neil were considering options for a new parlour and herd expansion at their Buckabank Farm, Dalston, Neil was a self-confessed ‘robot sceptic’.
One professional advised the Brough family to adopt a New Zealand grazing-style system, and another argued the best option was to install a rotary, but Neil decided to explore all the possibilities and travelled to Germany along with Richard’s son James to take a look at robot set-ups.
Neil says: “We were almost about to buy a 30:60 rapid exist parlour and I only really wanted to go to Germany to prove to myself that robots were not for us.
“I was impressed with how much milk the farmers were getting for the inputs they put in and how healthy and relaxed the cows looked.”
One year on, the family has installed four Lely A4 robots and gone from milking 180 pedigree Holsteins, under the Carrock prefix, to about 320, through the careful purchase of heifers to increase numbers.
Cows and heifers are separated, with heifers in the original extended shed on two robots and cows in the new building, with another two robots.
Stephen, who is on the board of directors for Holstein UK, says: “The separation helps avoid bullying and gives heifers an easier ride settling in, especially when we are aiming to calve the heifers at 24 months.” The aim will be to reduce this down to 22-23 months.
Space and comfort were the main two criteria when the shed was designed.
Neil says: “On looking at other robot sheds, space was crucial. The loafing area in front of both sets of robots measure 92sq.m.”
He says: “Any cows which do not have a good enough teat placement or persistently fail to enter the robot are transferred to the parlour herd.”
Health and fertility has improved over the last 12 months from a combination of new housing and robotic milking, says Neil.
“We have doubled the herd since getting the robots, yet the vet bill has stayed the same. “Cows are healthier and under less pressure – they are never chased to the collecting yard or through the parlour and show stronger bulling behaviour.”
Rubber mattresses with wings on the underside were put into the cubicles and cranked head rails to allow cows to stand freely with all four feet on the cubicle were installed – both have been worthwhile investments, say Stephen and Neil.
Initial teething problems with the robots came from cluster pipes coming off, either from cows kicking or getting tangled.
“The pipes needed regular re-attaching, but now we have got new pipe fittings this problem has been virtually eliminated,” says Neil.
“People often think you are tied to the robot in case it alarms, but in reality this in not true. We are lucky to have a large family who all help on the farm when needed.”
Neil’s brother, Craig is a land agent for Harrison and Hetherington, and his cousin James works for Keenan. Another cousin, Philip Potts also works full-time on the farm. Studying agriculture at Newton Rigg, Philip was apprentice of the year in 2014.
One of the best parts of the new building is the separation area, says Neil.
“Cows which need separating for the vet or a foot trim are diverted in to the separation area over the course of morning as they come in to milk.
“They have access to cubicles, feed and water, with no standing around in collection yards. Locking yolks mean we can easily control cows for pregnancy detection (PD’ing).
“The whole thing is very calm and involves very little stress on us, the vet, and most importantly the cows.”
The original 12:24 herringbone parlour is still in use, with Stephen milking a batch of 60 cows through it to keep volume up while the milk price is low.
Submission rate at 100 days in-milk has increased from 71 to 81 per cent on an annual basis. This is getting better all the time as the robot-trained cows calve back in to the system and is looking like heading toward 90 per cent, says Neil.
He adds: “Some of the cows initially suffered a bit of stress during training and lower visits leads to lower concentrate intakes when we first started with the robots.” Services per conception has fallen from 2.48 to 2.03.
Production figures have also seen a positive shift since the robots were installed. In 2014 the herd averaged 9,909kg per 305 days for 160 lacations at 3.84 per cent fat and 3.27 per cent protein. Cell count was 150, with a calving
interval of 417 days.
At present average yield per 305 days is 11,164kg at 3.81 per cent fat and 3.27 per cent protein for 247 lactations. Cell counts are currently sitting around the 110 mark. Calving interval is down to 406 days and is likely to drop further the next 12 months to 396 from what is PD positive at the moment.
Neil says: “The herd’s lactation curve has gone very flat since the robots were installed. This could be partly due to more frequent milking, currently at 3.21 milkings per day on average.
“We are not pushing for high yields or big peaks in production, but want cows to milk for longer. The herd is currently averaging 35kg daily and ideally we do not want any cows giving more than 60kg per day.”
Mainly using genomic semen, Stephen says they always select the bull first and then buy it off the relevant company.
Top bulls currently used are Linden Megawatt, Zahbulls Governo, Gandhi, Wiltor Corvette, Bovo Bomba.
Bulls need to be ‘robot ready’, 500 or more on PLI, and have a high fertility index.
“Sires must all cross a Type threshold, but Type is not a priority as we are not breeding show cows,” says Stephen.
“We want a balanced cow, and importantly, the rear teat placement must be suitable for the robot.”
Sexed semen is used during winter (only on maiden heifers) and the herd runs with bulls in summer.
Whether it be fertility, mastitis or milk production, the Broughs believes everything goes back to feeding.
Cows are fed on a total mixed ration (TMR), using a Keenan PACE system, down covered passages at either side of the sheds.
The TMR is formulated for maintenance plus 28 litres through a mix of maize and grass silage, rolled wheat, distillers, soya rape. The robot delivers concentrate over three feeds, with a maximum of 7.5kg and minimum of 2kg per day, depending on yield.
“As we get more cows and overall yield rises we will change this slightly – feeding for maintenance plus 30 litres in the TMR and drop the robot feeds maximum to 6kg.”
Dry cows are fed a high fibre ration of 6kg of pre-chopped straw, 3kg grass, 7kg wholecrop and 2-3kg distillers.
“After calving the cows seem to hit the ground running on this diet, we have not had an left displaced abomasum [LDA] in 18 months,” adds Neil.
In a bid to cut costs, the Broughs are considering a switch from feeding pellets in the robot to a blend.
Stephen says: “The focus at the moment is not to spend on anything we do not need and to keep the cows milking well.
“We did try cutting concentrates in the TMR but fertility started to dip slightly – this became apparent fairly quickly because we PD weekly.
“The key is to keep feeding balanced. When we started on the robots, we feed a high starch-based concentrate – we got loads of milk but the butterfat percentage crashed.
“We had pushed the peaks too high – it made the margin over feed look better, but we could see it would not last long.”