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Investment Reaps Rewards

Farmers from across Wales paid a visit to New House Farm, Little Newcastle, Haverfordwest in late August, with over 150 visitors keen to see the changes that have boosted production and reduced labour needs at Mark and Caroline Davies’ all grass farm.

Mark & Caroline with their two children

The couple’s 235-head pedigree Holstein herd, under the Tynewydd prefix, are housed all year-round, and major investment in robotic systems has led to some major cost-savings, higher yields and made management of the herd much more efficient.

In a major investment from March 2018 Mark and Caroline have installed four Astronaut A4 robots, four Luna brushes, two Discovery scrapers, a Juno pusher and Calm calf feeder.

The milkers are split into two halves in the same shed, which is divided into two mirror-i he herd split by their level of lactation and the heifers split equally between the two. Farming a total of 235 acres, five cuts of silage is taken across the season and added into clamps with maize silage, that they buy at the rate of 80 tonnes/month from the south of the county where it grows better.

While the Holsteins are housed all-year round, the 180 youngstock and far off dry cows carried, graze during the summer months.

Grazing farm changes to all year-round housing

“To be honest we haven’t looked back since the day robots were installed,” says Mark. “Our previous parlour, a 10:20 herringbone, was coming to the end of its life and needed to be replaced. At the time we were milking 7 hours a day – three and a half in the morning, and the same at night.

“Staffing was becoming a major issue and, in the past three years, finding people has got even harder. It’s the same story on all the farms around here. Now we’ve saved the cost of two labour units and run everything between us, with just two part-timers.

“We have two small children to look after and want to have family time. You have to stay on top of the robots, they do run themselves in one way, but it’s different. Having the feed passages on the outside of the building was a great decision as the Juno works 24/7 keeping on top of pushing the silage in towards the cows.”

All four robots were installed at the same time and, for the first 48 hours, Mark and Caroline put a gated system in place, but then moved away from this allowing the cows to move more freely. The couple operated a shift system between themselves to keep an eye on the cows overnight, and soon started extending the hours between watches.

Early adoption helped

“For the first couple of days we did have to find some cows using the robots collect list, and put them through the robots, but they soon adapted. The switch-over was quite straight forward and, as I said, we’ve never looked back,” adds Mark.

The aim at New House Farm is to increase yields rather than cow numbers, while retaining butterfat and protein, aiming to get 850 to 900kgs solids per cow/year. At the moment butterfat figures are 4.35% and protein 3.46%, with combined fat and protein at 846kgs/cow and they’re keen to keep them at these levels, if not higher.

It’s with yields from the Holsteins where they’ve seen some big gains since the switch to robotics.

“When the robots were installed, the average lactation was 9000 litres. In the first year there was a quick rise to 10,500 litres and since then it’s been a more gradual increase to the 12,025 litres we’re at today,” says Caroline. “Our aim is to top 12,500 litres, and we can see we have the potential to get there.” On average the cows make 3.4 visits to the robots each day and the information that’s fed
back through the system they find ‘invaluable’.

“We’d really miss that now,” says Mark. “It monitors everything: heat activity, rumen activity, conductivity from each quarter, milk temperature, butterfat and proteins, activity and so much more. We can pick up anything so much quicker and react more quickly. It makes the management of our cows so much more efficient.”

They believe watching the cows is still key to the success of the system, and find they have more time for this now, despite the lower staff ratio, to do this.