21 years of robotic milking in County Antrim

Wattons and jim.jpg
Jim Irwin with Bryan and Mark Watton

After more than two decades the father and son team from Ballybogey are still as enthusiastic about robotic milking, and have recently upgraded the dairy enterprise at Watton Farms with the installation of three Lely Astronaut A5 robots.

“Lely robots transformed our farm business,” recalled Mark. “The A2 robots were working on-farm since 4th April 2000, and from August this year we have been using three Lely’s A5 models.

“The A2 models have given us years of reliable service, and although Lely technology has advanced rapidly with the introduction of the A3, A3 Next, A4 and now the A5, the modular design of the A2 allowed it to be upgraded over the years. We were able to avail of the same technology and software as the newer Lely Astronaut models on the market.”

The Watton’s attribute the longevity of the Astronaut A2 robots to the dedication and expertise of the Lely service engineers. “Our original robots were fitted by Rodney Bond and Robert Glendenning, and after all this time they are still an integral part of the team at Lely Center Eglish,” said Bryan.

The new A5 models are faster and more efficient, and with improved cow throughput will give the Watton family the flexibility to increase herd size in the future.

“The transition was seamless, and carried out the by the Lely engineers in a short space of time. The old machines were replaced by the A5 models, and we were able to accommodate the third A5 by adding an extension to the existing cubicle shed.

“In fact, the three-bay extension has been designed to facilitate a fourth robot in the future,” explained Mark who manages a 200-cow commercial dairy herd averaging 8,500 litres at 4.30% butterfat and 3.28% protein. “We calve all year round which helps to maintain consistent numbers within the milking portion of the herd.

“The A5 robots are farmer-friendly and easy to operate – they virtually tell me what to do!”

Management of the herd is meticulous, with yields achieved on a diet of grass silage, or fresh grass depending on the season. Mark added: “We don’t use a diet feeder, but our aim is to maximise milk from forage. During the summer months the cows graze in the fields surrounding the farmyard, but we also have a zero grazer which is used to cut fields located across the main road. Concentrates are determined according to individual yield, and are fed in the robot up to a maximum of 10kgs per head per day.”

The enthusiasm for robotic milking at Watton Farms has impacted on the immediate vicinity, with North Antrim boasting the highest population of Lely Astronaut robots in the British Isles.

Bryan recalls following the evolution of robotic milking in the farming press from the early 1990s.

“Several household names involved in the manufacture of conventional parlours were dabbling trying to develop an automated system by incorporating parts of a parlour onto a robot.

 “I was impressed with Lely, who in my opinion, was away ahead of the competition with its concept and design for a milking robot.

“My wife and I visited a farm with an Astronaut A1. One of our former agricultural students had a brother working for Lely in England, and I discovered that a new A2 model was due for launch in 1999.”

Bryan added: ”I approached Lely about a bespoke installation featuring a left and right robot with a central control room. I also designed two overhead meals bins (with no auger) to service the robots. These meal bins are still in use today.”

 He continued: “There was a lot of excitement at the time because robotic milking was revolutionary, and people were curious to find out more about the ground-breaking technology.

“The Lely A2 robots put our farm on the map, and during the first year we welcomed more than 3,000 visitors from throughout Ireland and as far afield as Switzerland, South Africa, Australia and Canada. Among the visitors were various dairy discussion groups, veterinary and department of agriculture officials, and members of the British Agricultural Engineers.”