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Dairy special: Robots allow family's dairy business to continue

WITH a milking parlour due for an update and cows having outgrown the existing 40-year-old farm buildings, the Baker family knew the time had come to make a decision on the future of the dairy farm. Hannah Noble reports.

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From left: Richard, Carol and Brian Baker.
From left: Richard, Carol and Brian Baker.
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The Baker family see the benefits of installing robotic milking machines

Robots allow family's dairy business to continue

There were three options available to Brian Baker, who farms in partnership with his wife, Carol and son, Richard.

 

They could either invest to upgrade the parlour and put new cubicles in the old buildings, install robots and put up a new shed or sell the cows. The decision was made to go with the robots.

 

Brian is the fourth generation of Bakers at Close Turf Farm, St. Briavels, Gloucestershire, after his great grandfather moved in as a tenant in 1921. Soon after they became owners and since then, have significantly increased the size of the farm to 121 hectares (300 acres) of owned land and a further 81ha (200 acres) of land rented locally.

 

Brian says: “We looked at all the major brands of robot, but settled on two Lely Astronaut A4s and a Lely discovery robotic muck scraper.

 

"The other manufacturers also make parlours too, [but] Lely solely concentrate on the robots and that is what we wanted.

 

“Unfortunately there was no grant money available when we put the robots in, but we managed to buy them just before the pound crashed, otherwise the conversion rate would have been too high.

 

Design

“We budgeted the build for a worst case scenario of a 25 pence per litre milk price, and it will be paid off within the next ten years.”

 

Lely were keen to be involved in the project from an early stage and project co-ordinator, Alistair Cumings from Lely Centre Yeovil, led the design and execution, offering support and backup to the family throughout the process.

 

He says: “We had to make the building fit the location, the design was largely dictated by the site, wedged between the existing calf shed and silage clamp.”


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Alistair Cumings
Alistair Cumings

The new building contains 126 cubicles and is split into two sections, cows run in two groups of 50-60 for ease of management. There are two rows of cubicles for each group of cows, and 650mm of feeding space per cow along with locking yokes for each animal.

 

Cows are given 16 hours per day of daylight with automatic lighting, working on lux metres, followed by 8 hours of red light to avoid cows being disturbed, but still allowing the Bakers to see what is going on with the robots.

 

Air flow and ventilation were very important in the design, and a light ridge was also included. Richard says: “We have seen a great improvement in light in the buildings with the light ridge, the lights are very rarely switched on during the day."

 

Restricted by space, the Bakers decided to install a slurry tank below the shed and use slats. They opted for underground slurry storage to reduce rain water, and produce good quality slurry which has paid dividends this summer.

 

The Nitrogen levels in the slurry are much increased reducing the Baker’s need for bought-in fertiliser.

 

Mr Cumings says: “There is much less stress for heifers and fresh cows, they are doing everything at their own pace and they reward us with better feed intakes, and more milk.”

 

The family opted to include a robotic scraper with the new building, it is programmed with a number of routes which are carried out at set times, keeping the slats clean throughout the day and night.

 

Richard adds: “The choice to install a robotic scraper was based on lower maintenance costs than a chain scraper, less disturbance to the cows and the yard is clean all the time."

One of the Lely A4 Astronaut robotic milking machines.
One of the Lely A4 Astronaut robotic milking machines.

Cows are now inside all year round apart from dry cows and youngstock, which graze on the farm’s 140 acres (57 hectares) of grassland. They also grow 100 acres (40 hectares) of maize and 160 acres (65 hectares) of wheat.

 

Currently milking 90 cows, with 120 cows in the milking herd in total, the Bakers have around 60 heifers in-calf ready for herd expansion. Their plan is to double the herd eventually by breeding their own replacements.

 

“We run a closed herd, we have not bought anything in since a Hereford bull eight years ago, and we do not vaccinate for anything,” says Richard.

 

Yields

 

The two milking robots, along with the improved cow environment have helped to increase milk yields from an average of 9,500kg per cow per lactation to 11,200kgs at an average of 4.12 per cent fat and 3.14 per cent protein.

 

Brian says: “Average cell count of the herd is 151, and we have seen a drop in cases of mastitis since we have been in the new shed, we have had around two cases in the last three months.

 

“We were so impressed with how quickly the cows became accustomed to using the robots. On average they are visiting the robot 3.2 times per day.”

 

Cows have a 42-day voluntary waiting period before service, and two-weekly vet visits with Tyndale Farm Veterinary Practice, Dursley.

 

Brian says: “All AI and routine vet visits are carried out through the locking yokes, we don’t drive cows anywhere now."

 

Carol, who takes the lead with breeding and cow management, says: “The extra hours we would usually spend milking are now used to carry out other jobs, including more accurate visual heat detection, used in conjunction with the robot’s heat detection system which provides activity and rumination data."

 

The slats are deeply grooved to allow cows to be confident enough to express normal bulling behaviour.

 

The robot also alerts the Bakers of any changes in milk conductivity, weight loss, temperature and rumination, and it is able to raise an alert for the specific quarter which may have problems with mastitis.

A robotic muck scraper keeps slats clean.
A robotic muck scraper keeps slats clean.

Carol says: “It helps to pre-empt and also confirm drops you may have already noticed in a cow’s health, it has also helped with cutting the farm’s antibiotic usage."

 

Sexed semen is used on heifers and they are even selectively using some on their best cows. In order to qualify for insemination with sexed semen must not have had any problems during calving, must be clean and their general health must be good at the time of service.

 

Conventional dairy semen is used on the rest of the cows and the Hereford bull sweeps up the heifers. Selection criteria for bulls has a strong focus on a wider teat placement following the installation of the robots.

 

“Good legs and feet are a must along with good udders, we don’t really select for anything else except Type Merit, in our experience, as long as you have the right kind of Type everything else is included," says Carol.

 

“Longevity is really important. Some of the cows in the herd are as much as 13 years old,” says Carol.

 

There are plans for automated curtains to be installed, allowing for more control over the weather and allowing it to be made bird and badger-proof.

 

“The next step is to automate the youngstock rearing process. Automatic calf feeders will be introduced along with the possibility of a new calf shed, or igloos, we are weighing up all the options,” says Carol.

Farm Facts

  • Daughters, Claire and Kathryn are also involved in the farm, helping out at weekends and they were integral to the robot training process.
  • Cows are fed a 40 per cent blend of maize and grass silage, caustic wheat and brewer’s grains, formulated by independent nutritionist, Chris Thorpe. All the grass, maize and wheat is grown on the farm.
  • The Baker family sells its milk to Sainsbury’s.
  • Cows are bedded on mattresses and sawdust, limed three times per week.
  • Soil is tested every six months on a rotation around the whole farm.
  • Heat is recovered from the milk bulk tank and used to heat he farm office and hot water for the robots, this has resulted in a cut in electrical usage.
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