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Investing in a Lely manure robot is helping one young farmer improve efficiency so he can work off-farm and manage the risk of digital dermatitis. 

Farm facts:
•    Farming 150 acres, including 18 acres of woodland
•    Contract rearing 180 Holstein heifers from 12 months until calving
•    Taking three cuts of silage and selling surplus 
•    Farming 700ft above sea level
•    About 1,300mm of rainfall annually
•    Heifers grazed from April to October
•    Taking three cuts of silage annually in May, June/July and September
•    Foot-trimming 250-270 cows/week over five full days
•    Farming in partnership with his brother, Andrew, and mother, Eirian.

Foot-trimmer Alun Howells says buying an automatic slurry robot has allowed him to streamline his workload, saving one hour manually scraping sheds.

Combined with using a silage additive, which has allowed him to move to feeding heifers once every day, and using cameras linked to his phone to check stock remotely, these changes have saved considerable time.

It means he can now spend more time foot-trimming, rather than be tied to the farm where he rears 180 heifers on contract for a nearby dairy farmer.

About the heifer-rearing enterprise

The heifer-rearing enterprise has evolved over time. It first began 12 years ago when Mr Howells’ father, Tom, was diagnosed with a brain tumour.
At the time, they farmed suckler beef. 
“We didn’t want to sell the place. Dad had 16 months from diagnosis to dying, and in that time, he took us to see a consultant, Steve Allen, from Pentagon Associates Ltd, and he put us on the straight and narrow so we could keep the farm going,” explains Mr Howells, who was aged just 22, and his brother, Andrew, was 24, when their father died. 

They assessed various options with Mr Allen, but as former dairy farmers, they liked the idea of heifer rearing because it provided a regular, monthly income.

They are now the fourth generation to farm at Eithinduon-Isaf Farm near Carmarthen.

Originally, they started rearing weaned heifers. Heifers were served at Eithinduon-Isaf and returned to the dairy six weeks before calving. But as the dairy farm has grown, the agreement has matured. 
The Howells are now one of three units rearing replacements. All units close enough to be linked so that animals can move freely between them, regardless of TB status. 

The Howells currently rear bulling heifers aged 12 months through to calving. 

To keep costs and labour requirements minimal, they run a ‘simple system’ with good-quality baled or chopped silage fed to avoid having to run a feeder wagon.
“The aim is to take three cuts of 10.8-11megajoules of metabolisable protein silage at about 36% dry matter,” says Mr Howells.
To facilitate this, he has re-seeded half of the farm with three-year leys of perennial ryegrass. 
During the summer, in-calf heifers are paddock grazed at a lower daily cost per head. All animals receive 3kg a head a day of an 18% crude protein pellet.

Slurry robot

Two years ago, Andrew became a herd manager for two spring-block dairy units near Llandeilo, so the brothers looked at how they could improve efficiency so that Alun could continue foot-trimming.

They installed a Lely Discovery 120 Collector last February. It was easily retrofitted into the existing cubicle shed, which comprises two rows of cubicles and a feed fence on each side of a central passageway. 

Mr Howells says the installation was straightforward and quick.
“The robot was delivered in a box in the morning, and by the time I arrived home from foot-trimming, it was set up, and the routes were mapped.”

The Lely Discovery 120 Collector is controlled via an app, which Mr Howells says is user-friendly.
“I can use it to change the times it operates and alter the routes,” he explains.

It is programmed to run hourly for 20 minutes and takes 40 minutes to charge at a docking station. It sprays water from the front and back of the machine to improve floor cleanliness and reduce hooves slipping.

Foot health

Mr Howells, who is fully qualified with the Cattle Hoof Care Standards Board (CHCSB), believes it has helped reduce digital dermatitis. 
“Digital dermatitis is caused by the bacteria called Treponemes that is found in slurry. It can take 90 days for the bacteria to show itself in the form of digital dermatitis lesions, so cases can start at another unit and present after they arrive,” he explains.

Furthermore, animals with lesions act as a reservoir for infection, explains Mr Howells.

“While cases are very low if a heifer does have active lesions, I believe the robot has slowed down the spread of digital dermatitis by reducing the bacteria spreading the infection to other animals.”

Mr Howells says prompt detection and treatment while lesions are still small are key to treatment success. 

He adds that having a robot to keep floors clean is a “no-brainer for foot health.”

Time savings

Mr Howells says it previously took one hour daily to scrape the four passageways in the cubicle shed with the tractor and scraper.

Then it took about another hour to feed and replenish the cubicle beds with sawdust, he adds.

Since using a silage additive and strategically feeding baled silage during the hotter summer months to avoid opening clamped silage in a bid to prevent heating, Mr Howells has moved to feeding heifers every other day.

Mr Howells explains: “I still must scrape one outside loafing yard, but I do this every other day because it is a large area,” he explains.

“I found it was a two-hour slog every day before because if you were scraping, you had to feed at the same time [to encourage heifers to move].”

These tasks now take 40 minutes every other day, on average.

Although he stresses heifers are still checked twice daily.
“I keep my crush at the farm and have a wash bay to clean equipment, so I’m still checking the heifers each morning before I leave and in the evening when I return home.”

The time saving is also enabling him to spend more time with his wife, Kelly, and their four young boys. 

He hopes continuing to drive for efficiency will improve profitability and leave the business in a healthy position for his children to take over one day.
“Farming is becoming more challenging, and you must look at ways to become more efficient.

“It’s been 10 years since last May that Dad died. I hope as a family we have made him proud and without putting any pressure on them, it would be nice to see the next generation take the farm on one day.”