Located in East Ayrshire, the father-son duo of Hugh & Alastair Watson, manage their 310 herd of mainly bought in Holstein cows. Having won the prestigious ‘Agriscot Dairy Farm of the year’ in 2018, they are no strangers in the dairy industry.
Back around 2010, they began to look at merging two farms together and moving forward to work in a more sustainable manner. They dipped their toes in the water with the possibly of moving to robotic milking. Back then, dairy automation was in the early stages in Scotland with very few farms with robots. This made the research slightly harder but once Hugh & Alastair made their decision, Lely was the brand they were going to be installing in their dairy setup.
In 2011 they began their dairy automation journey by installing two A3 Next Astronaut robotic milking systems. This was the Watson family testing the water for what the future could bring for them. A short time later, in 2012, they amalgamated the two farms and installed a further three A4 robotic milking systems. Prior to this they had been milking in conventional parlours averaging 7000 litres. Milking three times a day in the parlour was not an option for Hugh & Alastair and this was needed to get the optimum out of their cows.
The Watson family farm 143 hectares, an all-grass farm which they harvest by themselves. The cows are fed grass silage and meal mixture, with their current yield being 11700kg. When the cows are being robotically milked, they are fed two cakes. This is another added benefit to robotic milking that the conventional parlour does not feature.
In 2011, the ‘Lely Juno 150’ ultimate feed pusher was added to the team at Laigh Tarbeg. This piece of equipment is a key feature on the farm and pushes the feed up to the feed fence every hour and a half. This ensures the cows have access to feed 24/7 and have equal feed choices. “The Juno attracts the cows to the feed barrier and has increased their feed intake dramatically. It is one of the pieces of equipment you notice if it has a breakdown, which thankfully doesn’t happen often” added Alastair. The Watson Family have replaced their feed pusher just over three years ago.
Also installed in the barn around this time were four ‘Lely Cosmix’ feeders. These feeders are programmed to feed the cows when they are not being milked. However, if the cow is due to be milked the feeder will refuse the feed for the cow and it will have to go to the robot to be milked. The cows have adapted well to these feeders. “The Cosmix work particularly well for my high yielders” added Alastair.
Just to finalise the package, the ‘Lely Discovery 90S’ was installed in 2012. This automatic manure scraper ensures the passages are scraped clean 24/7. This in turn means the cows feet and legs are cleaner, reducing foot health issues such a digital dermatitis. Udder health is also improved with the beds being cleaner. This Discovery has seven routes it completes throughout the day continually. “The shed is more pleasant to be in since installing our Discovery. The cows adapted well to it, it’s so small they can almost step over it” added Alastair.
Moving to dairy automation has given this herd a more cow-friendly approach to milking. The cows can be milked three to four times a day which they would not have been able to previously. Hugh added; “Robotic milking is a more natural way of milking, calves would suck their mothers five times a day, robotic milking gives the cows the freedom to have that choice too”.
Laigh Tarbeg is a family run farm with the work team being Hugh, his son Alastair and one full time member of staff. They also have a farm worker come in and feed the cows every morning for two hours. At the weekend, two farm workers rotate on week on/week off rota.
More recently in early 2021, to keep the business moving and keep at the front edge of the game, Hugh & Alastair decided to upgrade two of their A4 models for two A5 Astronauts. The Lely Center Kilmarnock team managed this changeover, and it went smoothly with only a downtime of three hours per machine. Alastair added “I was particularly impressed with the change-over, it was really sweet, and the cows were not affected in any way”. This had been a concern for Alastair prior to the upgrade. A few months after install the team are noticing a quicker, more accurate connection on the cows with the A5. “We are having less failures daily” added Alastair. With the average litres now up to 10,000 litres with a daily average of 40 litres compared to 22 litres when milking in the conventional parlour. The herd are also hitting 3.2 milking’s per day. The Watson family have also noticed a decrease in electricity since moving to the A5 with less compressed air required.
With dairy automation, the Watson family are able to have the flexibility to prioritise tasks on the farm that they wouldn’t have been able to with a conventional parlour. They now use the data from the robots putting it to good use, giving each cow the individual care she requires. The data is there for Hugh & Alastair to see, they don’t have to go looking for it. They are looking forward to the Horizon programme becoming available and being able to gain even more from the robots.
Alastair added; “The biggest change for me is getting away from the parlour, or maybe training Dad!” The flexibility has been key for both Hugh and Alastair. They can now treat the cows in a more individual manner and concentrate more on the data they are receiving from the robot.
The Watson Family are very keen to promote farming and the dairy industry to many groups from RHET through to local church groups. This gives them the chance to speak to the public about the benefits of farming and explain a little more in depth the reasons for many of their decisions. Hugh and Alastair also held an open day for Lely Center Kilmarnock back in 2013 to showcase their dairy automated setup and give other farmers an insight to how robotic milking could work for them.