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Andrew Griffiths

Robots bring huge potential to Cheshire farm

When Andrew Griffiths switched to three times a day milking, he really began to see the true potential of his dairy cows… but staff issues made it impossible for the farm to operate in this way.

So, after a good ‘look around’ at alternatives that would both keep yields increasing and solve the labour issue, he decided to install three Lely Astronaut A4s, and quickly followed with another three just nine months later. All this despite investing in extending his existing herringbone from 16:32 to 24:48 a couple of years earlier.

“The first robots were installed in August 2013, followed by the next set in May 2014,” he says. “And we haven’t looked back since.”

At Bulls Green Farm in Barbridge, Cheshire, Andrew has a total of around 500 acres, 200 acres owned and 300 rented. Some 332 acres are grass, even though the cows don’t graze at all, with most of the remainder down to maize making around 2700 tonnes of silage. This supports the 400-head dairy herd and 320 youngstock on the farm at any one time.

The herd is Holstein Friesian, with sexed semen used on the top cows to produce 150 heifer calves a year. “We’ve been hit hard by TB in the past so we always need to plan to have more than we need as we never know what we’ll lose. We’ve already sold 30 this year and have another 30 to do, we would aim to keep 90 to 100 as replacements.” The youngstock graze 60 acres before the first of up to five cuts of silage is taken, with the aim of getting between 2500 and 3000 tonnes in the clamp.

“Anything over six months of age is grazed, served at 14 months, and once we are confident she’s in calf she goes back out.  We use our own sweeper bull, a Limousin, and bring them back inside eight weeks before calving. Beef calves go to Market Drayton to be sold from about five weeks.

"We're lukcy we can hold extra stock through the summer, but not over the winter, so we have to make decisions in the autumn about what we will keep."

Lack of Labour a Problem

Bulls Green Farm was a family farm with Andrew taking over the reins, along with his mother, when his father passed away some 30 years ago. "At that point we had 120 cows, it was an all grazing unit, and we were milking through a 16:32 herringbone. We invested in another shed and increased numbers to 250, then in 2010 added another shed and pushed numbers up to 400 milking through the 24:48.

"For 12 months after this we moved to three times a day milking. But my herdsman David was continually let down by night staff and he and I kept working from 4am to 12pm. Locally robots became increasingly popular, and lots of farmers in the area were installing robots."

"We decided to invest in three robots but still put half the herd through the parlour - and soon realised we were losing between five to ten litres a day from the cows going through the parlour. It was a no brainer to invest in the second lot of three."

Resultant labour savings were huge, with three less full-time staff needed and no night staff.  The next investment came with the twin tub Vector automatic feeding system, where Andrew was one of the first to install one.  “This has been another revelation as we don’t need a feeder wagon anymore, save on fuel and a driver, nor do we get any bully within the herd as there’s always plenty of food and it's fresh. The Vector works 24/7 and the fresher the food, the more gets eaten. In the past feeding the herd was taking eight hours a day - now it's eight hours a week - and that's just the time it takes to fill the kitchen a couple of times a week."

Yield increases, time savings and better cow management

So what has found are the main benefits from his robots?

“Savings with labour and time.  You’re a much better cow manager if you’re not stuck in the parlour for the best part of a day putting the units on.

“Our fertility is a lot better now than it was, and we’ve become much better at managing our grass efficiently.  We’ve seen a 15-20% improvement in our pregnancy rates and we make our own silage, to be honest doing a much better job than a contractor as we can go when the time is right.  We try to cut every 32-35 days but can go to 40 if the grass hasn’t headed and gone past its best.”

They’re an all-year-round calving herd, with 89% in calf at 150 days.  Another very measurable benefit has been the increase in yield, now up to 11500 litres/cow.  “This has gone up 1000/litres a cow since we installed the robots – that’s an extra income worth £280 a cow on average – so over the 400 cows that represents an extra income of £112,000. And we get so much valuable information from the T4C management system that tells me a lot about the cows and what I'm feeding all the time."

Andrew says the Lely robots have changed his life and has no hesitation in talking to other farmers about his decision-making  process.  “They won’t suit every situation, but going this route really was the best decision I’ve made, and while I am probably every bit as busy as I was before, and juggling my young children (Evie 10 and Joseph 7), I find I’m no longer tied to the farm all day every day.”