With their existing parlour needing an update, the Blamire family had to weigh up the options on where to invest when it came to milking equipment.
Faced with the prospect of investing to bring the milking parlour at Park House Farm, Wigton, up-to-date gave Tony Blamire, who farms alongside his son, William, and father, Robert, took the opportunity to consider their options.
With William looking to take on more responsibility, and with a young family at home, a desire to improve work-life balance coupled with growing pressures around sourcing labour were among the reasons behind the decision to switch to robotic milking.
Four DeLaval VMS V300s were installed for the 270-head Holstein herd in April this year, making it one of the first sites in England to install the new model.
Although slightly sooner than may have been the case, the significant investment needed meant the application window for a 40 per cent Rural Development Programme for England (RDPE) grant to put towards these was not something the business could pass up.
With an existing all-year-round housing system and sufficient shed space in place, building work to alter the layout and make way for the robots began in October 2018 and was competed over six months.
Bought through their local dealer, Mathers Dairy Utensils in Dumfries, the family felt the V300 model had the features which best suited what they were looking for, having visited several robotically milked herds in the UK alongside a trip which William went on to see it working in Holland.
Tony says: “Certain features like the milk quality check and the herd navigator appealed. It can give us a precise milk analysis for each cow as well as offering a built-in, all-in-one system for early heat detection, mastitis and ketosis management alongside the tool to measure feed efficiency.”
Cows are now five months into the new system at Park House, which is run over 200 hectares (500 acres) in total over two sites on the edge of the Solway Coast.
About 65ha (160 acres) of this is arable production, used to grow wheat and barley in the main which is fed back to cattle alongside a total of 245ha (600 acres) of silage grown annually over three cuts.
In addition to the milking herd, about 70 to 80 replacement heifers are kept annually alongside 100 to 150 beef-sired calves which are kept and finished each year.
The farm also lambs a 100-head flock of Suffolk and Texel cross ewes and will finish between 700 and 800 store lambs each year.
Since the robots arrived, it has been all hands on deck during the transition.
“We ran cows through in three groups for the first two weeks, and during that time there was someone in the shed 24 hours per day to keep the cows flowing through.
“Some picked it up quickly and were happy on the new system within a week, and others are yet to fully settle on it but it has been reasonably smooth.
“There are probably only 20 cows we have to go and find now, but these will generally head to the robot as soon as they are up.”
Cows are run as one group to allow for a continual smooth through-put between the robots and despite the initial rise in workload during the transition, Tony says he is confident it will level and ease off once the system has been in place for 12 months or so.
Initial herd performance indicators look positive on the back of the investment so far, showing a rise in milk yield from 35kg to 40kg per cow in the months since they were installed as well as a reduction mastitis cases from four or five per week, to that incidence level now per month.
“We knew average daily milkings would increase and up production, and was another consideration when we were thinking about installing the robots and although we have looked at three-times-per-day milking in the past, it soon became clear that staffing would be a problem.
“Those cows with the potential to give 70 to 80kg can milk more than three times per day now to achieve this.”
The robots have also addressed parlour function issues which were, Tony says, partly responsible for the mastitis levels the herd had been seeing, but the general improvement in consistencies they can achieve around pre and post-teat treatments and general parlour cleanliness has also helped.
“We were changing the vacuum in the parlour regularly because dust was getting into the air filters.
“Whereas the robots have an alarm system for any issue like this, it was sometimes too late when we realised with the parlour which meant mastitis was a persistent problem for us.
“That and the consistency you get in replacing man-power with a machine. Although you think you are making a good job in the parlour, it is easily done to miss getting everything totally clean all of the time.”
Milk is all sold on an Arla contract, with average annual milk yield on a steady rise for the past couple years, up from 9,500 litres in 2017 to 10,000 in 2018, at 4.1 per cent butterfat and 3.2 per cent protein.
The aim now is to achieve 11,500 litres by the end of 2020, a figure which initial forecasts are suggesting they are on track to do.
Fresh calvers receive up to 8kg of concentrate through the robots, built up over the first fortnight post-calving alongside 150ml of propylene glycol per day for the first 60 days. For higher yielders, this will increase to a maximum of 12kg depending on visits until after 100 days in-milk when cows are fed to yield.
AI is used across the herd and sees 50 per cent of cows and heifers, selected on performance and type, served to dairy bulls using sexed semen to achieve conception rates of 75 per cent in heifers and about 55 per cent in cows, with a calving index of about 408 days.
The remaining 50 per cent, and any which have failed to get in-calf to a dairy bull after up to two cycles, will go to the Angus bull, with all beef calves kept and finished on the farm and sold via a Marks and Spencers contract at 20-24 months old.
With about 60 per cent of cows calved from early September through to the end of November, in-line with milk contract demands, their system will generally see more calves sold towards the end of the year.
Despite being less than six months in, the robots, Tony says, have allowed them to see a lot more of the cows and therefore spot issues like lameness a lot sooner.
“When we were in the shed before, it was mainly to push cows into the parlour and meant a lot of the time they were walking away from us which gave fewer opportunities to spot problems – we are definitely among them more now to pick these things up.”