“We have noticed that visitors to the farm expect to see our cows outside grazing; our organic herd use the Grazeway to decide when they want to go outside, and they come back inside to the Astronaut to be milked. They really are ‘free range’ cows.”
10 years ago, Simon and Linda Heywood, installed an Astronaut milking robot along with the Grazeway system allowing their herd the choice of when to be milked and when to graze outside. The two systems working in tandem has given the Heywood’s, who farm near Croyde, Devon, the time to diversify into value adding initiatives such as daughter Bex’s Milks Up vending machine, which uses pasteurised milk from their grass-fed organic herd and Linda’s North Hole Farm holiday cottages.
“We are so glad we made the decision to automate”, Simon tells me “we had outgrown our old milking parlour and had actually paid a deposit on a new parlour before we decided to switch to robotic milking. We went against peer advise at the time and also installed the Grazeway system as allowing the cows to graze outside was essential for us. We knew the combination of milking robots and Grazeway is used really effectively in Ireland and we couldn’t see why it wouldn’t work for us here in Devon too.”
The herd are more relaxed than ever before and Simon attributes this to the Astronaut milking robot, “We have complete confidence that our cows will readily return to the robot for milking. The combination of the Astronaut and the Grazeway means the cows are more relaxed and are in much better physical and emotional health now that they aren’t being collected and stressed twice a day”.
Currently, the milking cows are averaging 2.7 visits to the robot a day and yield is consistent at 7000 litres. After milking, the cows use the Grazeway to go outside from 8am and they bring themselves back in again to be milked anytime from lunchtime onwards, having up to 20 hours a day access to grass during the summer months. The herd of 80 free range cows, who spend up to 300 days a year grazing, is made up of Friesian, Jersey and Short Horns. The cows have access to a fresh paddock of grass for a 24-hour period each day and there is the option of a buffer feed of silage at the feed fence in the evenings. Bex explained that in the heat of the summer, the cows often bring themselves back in to the barn during the daytime and go out to graze overnight.
The Heywood’s have laid four-metre-wide tracks using hardcore stone with the furthest paddock being 1 mile from the robot shed. They operate an eight to ten-year grassland management reseeding programme on their 250 acre farm with the family currently trialling Herbal Leys due to the dry conditions increasingly experienced in early spring.
“The decision to automate gave us flexibility at a crucial time for family as it allowed us to care for two elderly relatives whilst still maintaining the farm and the milking herd.” Simon continues “we aren’t tied to afternoon milking anymore nor do we have to be in the parlour for set hours each day. Robots have created time, especially in the afternoons, to do other jobs around the farm and for Bex to set-up and now run the Milk’s Up vending machine enterprise.”
Linda adds that the robots meant that the family with their three children: Bex, Tom and George, could go away and leave the farm in the hands of our neighbour. “For the first time in years, we weren’t restricted to only being able to be off farm between the hours of 11am-3pm. The flexibility the robots have given us as a family is unbelievable.”
“The robots allow us to have lie ins” adds Bex, “we can sometimes start work as late as 8am and we will be finished and home by around 6pm. Automating the milking process has allowed us to manage the cows differently which is good for our mental health too. We still have contact with the cows, obviously, but we aren’t stressing them, and we are no longer ruled by the clock. The robot picks up any health concerns with individual cows and flags it with us so we can carry out any specific checks or treatment”.
“With the milk vending machine and the holiday cottages, we have a lot of people visiting the farm, some of whom are on holiday in our local tourist area, and our customers and consumers want, expect even, to see cows grazing outside and displaying natural behaviours. Visitors to the farm can see how relaxed and happy the cows are and we are able to promote a really positive view of organic dairy farming. Our cows spend up to 300 days a year in their natural environment and that in turn makes visitors happier to drink our products.” Explains Linda.
Bex, a Harper Adams graduate who has returned to the farm fulltime, adds, “our visitors want to engage with us, and I love showing them the cows out grazing and helping to educate the public. There is so much incorrect information on the internet surrounding dairy farming, so it is nice to be able to chat to and educate the public on our farming methods.”
“The robots have improved cow health and happiness and allowed us time in our days to look at diversification strategies. The automation of milking and grazing has also given us flexibility to get off the farm, something which is invaluable to our wellbeing too. We would recommend both the Astronaut and the Grazeway to anyone considering robotic milking and grazing” finishes Simon.