Aled Lewis loves his robots
Aled Lewis loves robots, his Lely milking robots, and says they’ve turned his life around, giving him more up-to-date information as well as more time to spend off-farm in his role as a school governor and part-time fireman.
Farming 450 acres at Penybont, Tregaron near Aberystwyth on the west coast of Wales, with his brother Lloyd, they run a 150-head flying herd of high-yielding Friesian Holsteins, and Aled says his cows adapted well to the change from a traditional herringbone parlour to the three Astronaut units now installed.
“When we made the decision to install a new parlour, we did a lot of research and I went to both Holland and France and looked at different companies and units, not only robotic options. We chose Lely because it suited our system and we saw how well the system worked and how pleased customers were with what it offered.
“My advice would be not to rush into making a decision – do your own research – make sure you’ve got a good bank manager who understands why you’re making the decision, and look at the after sales service. Ours has been excellent.
“One of the key decision makers was the difficulty we have in finding labour, and our desire to improve our lifestyle.
“Young people don’t want to stay on the farm 24/7 and my son, Elliot, who helps me with everything to do with the cattle, loves the robots and is so keen he wants to become a Lely engineer and then buy and run a farm in Holland in the future!”
He says there’s no doubt the robots have changed the family’s lives. “I still get up at 5am in the morning and that won’t change, I’m a morning man. My wife thinks I’m mad, but now I have so much more time available in the day, time to spend away from the farm if necessary, and time to analyse all the information that the robots provide.”
The whole farm is down to grass, with the nearest grazing just 250 yards from the robots. “We’ve found that visits to the robots do go down when the cows go out to grass, from 3.2 visits a day to around 2.5 a day in the summer, depending on how much grass there is in front of them. But yields have gone up.
Trying to find robot-trained cows has been one issue the farm has faced. TB has been a problem in this area and, when the pandemic hit and most markets closed, there was also the added difficulty of trying to import from Europe post-Brexit.
“I managed to buy 12 cows last summer, they were all trained and went straight into the system without any problems. Whereas I bought another five a month or two back, they weren’t trained, and we were still having to collect them two to three times a day for a couple of weeks. But, to be fair, they do soon pick it up.”
Aled started looking at changing his parlour five or six years ago, as his existing herringbone was showing its age at 37 years. It started to break down regularly, and he found he was spending more and more time repairing it. At the same time his herdsman decided it was time to retire, and the family were finding it difficult to find a good replacement.
“The problem is that we can’t pay the big money qualified people want and I haven’t been able to find people who are happy to milk cows 7 days a week.”
Aled also felt his son, who was 10 at the time, wouldn’t want to be tied to a milking parlour in the way he had been for most of his life.
“With the herringbone we were tied in, for two and a half to three hours morning and night. And I kept thinking to myself that nobody would want to do that moving into the future. We had to move with the times.”
The cows are split into two groups, with the high yielders, usually a group of around 60 cows, sharing one robot between them, and the mid-lactating group sharing two robots between them. The cows calve all-year-round, and he’s seen yield increase to around 9500 litres/cow on average with the top cows giving up to 14,000litres.
“I’m certain that having access to the robots 24/7 has helped put more milk in the tank,” he says. “And the wealth of information that I get on my computer is incredible. Now I have time to look at it, and sometimes get lost in the figures. My wife rings up to see if I’m OK because I’ve been in the office for hours!
“But I get information on when the cows are bulling, and when the best time is to serve, enabling us to improve fertility, on how she is eating and her rumination, early detection of mastitis and so much more. It can be a bit overwhelming to start with but once you get used to it, it’s so useful in the longer term.”
Aled does feels more and more producers will be looking to embrace new technology in the future. “I think as an industry we’ve been a bit slow but now, to improve productivity and efficiency, we’ve got to look at robotics", he says.
“One of the reasons I went with Lely is because they’re putting so much into the future of farming. They have technology coming that we can only dream about. And it’s all aimed at improving farm businesses and making them competitive in a global market.
“Their commitment to local businesses in Wales is immense, and key for me is access to engineers quickly, should something go wrong.
"We're very happy with our decision. We're confident we made the right choice and look forward to a bright future where farming is one of the industries where young people want to work."