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“... it was the best decision I made”
It might have taken Welsh dairy farmer Gerallt Woolley 10 years to decide to invest in a robotic milking system… but today he looks back and sees how much easier his job has become and how he can leave the farm and not constantly be checking his watch to ensure he’s back in time for milking.
“As Lely has grown its business in Wales it became possible for us to invest. There were engineers close by, and we looked at other working systems, including some in Ireland, before finally committing. For me it was really a choice of go the robotic route or go out of milking.”
Gerallt farms 84ha at Rhosfawr, Blaenplwyf, Aberystwyth and installed his Lely Astronaut A4 in October 2015. “To be honest it was the best decision I made,” he says. “It’s freed up time every day – probably four to five hours a day – and now I can leave the farm without having to panic about getting back at a certain time.”
He added two bays to the end of his existing building and fitted the Astronaut there, and he says his 64 milkers adapted to it very well. “Over four or five days they sorted themselves out. The heifers were quicker than the older cows, but it didn’t take them long.”
Labour was a big issue at Rhosfawr. Gerallt had three relief milkers, but he was finding it harder and harder to get any extra help. “Now I don’t need anyone, I can manage the cows on my own.” His wife has a part time job, so although this is a true family business, managing the stock efficiently is key.
“My grandfather bought the farm in 1958 and my father bought an adjacent farm to bring the total area up to the 82ha,” he explains. “I came into the partnership in 2000 and we had about 32 milkers at the time. We’ve gradually increased the numbers, and have double now, but I’ve no inclination to get any bigger than this.
“In fact, I would rather go down to about 58 head but push yields.”
He has two reasons behind this – one he would have to invest in a second robot, as each is happiest milking around 60 cows, and secondly, he would struggle with the new slurry storage regulations coming into effect which will put a lot of family farmers under pressure as there needs to be storage for five months on any farm in the future.
Grass growth was slow this year, with the low temperatures and the prolonged spring rain, but it’s caught up fast, with silage and hay for sheep and calves following closely behind.
The farm takes three cuts each year and uses a contractor to the bales. Fields are strip grazed, with the fences moved twice a day and his Grazeway gate switches over at 7am and 3pm every day, directing the milkers to fresh grass.
The cows were more Friesian but are moving towards a greater proportion of Holstein in a bid to improve yields. Gerallt is trying to keep the proteins and fats higher as he is on a solids contract with his creamery and feels the Friesian genetics keep these up. Now his fats are running at 4.6% and proteins at 3.5%.
He selects for solids first, then udders, feet, and legs. He used all sexed semen on his cows last year to boost his replacements but would normally be looking for between 10 and 12 a year, and after that use beef bulls on all his stock.
Fitting 122 solar panels in 2020 has reduced that cost considerably. Many of his other costs have also decreased. He’s seeing far less cases of mastitis, so is using less medication, his cows are generally a lot more relaxed and healthier, and his yield has gone up year on year.
"Maybe the technology puts some people off, but my father had never used a computer in his life, and he copes really well. I'll often find him checking through the management information!"
Gerallt says the management information is ‘an added bonus’ as he’s able to spot any issues very early and it offers great and accurate information on cell counts, butterfat and protein. It also helps with breeding, identifying heats quickly, and offers him more
opportunity to spend time managing the cows.
"The farm is so much easier to manage with the robot" he says. "It's proven its value time and time again, event on a small family farm. I have so much more time, I'm able to leave the farm without worrying, and I can count on one hand the number of times I have had to call out an engineer.
“The farm is a family business with my dad, my daughter Tia and myself, but with dad being of an age and Tia in college part time, it’s mainly just me for the cows. And I doubt I’d still be a dairy farmer if I hadn’t invested with Lely.”