Embracing robotic technology alongside renewable energy is allowing Ceredigion farmer Aled Lewis to run a self-sufficient and labour-efficient mixed farming enterprise.
Mr Lewis milks 150 cows in partnership with his brother, Lloyd. They operate a flying herd with cows calving all year round and all beef calves retained and finished by 24 months and sold to Dunbia.
They have invested heavily in renewables over the past 10 years including 4kW of roof-mounted solar panels, a 185kW biomass boiler and four combined heat and power (CHP) units which generate 160kW/hour at full capacity.
“We are self-sufficient in water, heat and electric,” says Aled, who won the NFU Cymry/Wynnstay Sustainable Agriculture Award last year.
The Lewises replaced their existing 12/12 Herringbone parlour with three Lely A5 Astronaut robots in 2019.
“The parlour had been in for 37 years and had come to the end of its life. It was becoming increasingly difficult to find staff to milk and our workman was retiring.
“I have always loved new technology and my brother went to the Netherlands to see robotic farms. We already had the renewables and knew how important good back-up was and Lely seemed an obvious choice,” explains Aled.
The Lewises try to keep things simple.
Once cows surpass 100 days in milk (DIM) and are in-calf they are moved from a high-yielding group to a low-yielding group.
High-yielding cows are fed a Total Mixed Ration (TMR) comprising of grass silage, sugar beet and blend, plus minerals. Low yielders are grazed following first cut in May until November. Cows are turned out in the morning and brought inside and buffer fed at night.
High yielders are currently averaging 44 litres daily from 3.7 milkings daily and lows are producing 20 litres per day from 2.2 milkings, on average.
The robots help to keep udder health high with mastitis rates averaging under 5% and, as a result, this is helping to extend cow lifespan with the herd replacement rate averaging 11%, says Aled.
“We have plenty of seventh and eight lactation cows in the herd and some 13th [lactation],” he comments.
Replacements are bought from Sedgemoor market with Aled sourcing dry cows or first calvers that have already been robot trained.
Lely’s Horizon app is also aiding cow longevity by flagging up potential sick cows through its rumination and milk quality monitoring programmes.
“I couldn’t live without it [Horizon]. It gives you lists of cows to collect, what to dry off, cows that are going to calve… most things can be done on it,” adds Aled.
Despite the fact the farm is in a lesser favoured area (LFA) they have reduced fertiliser inputs from 100t to 30t annually by making better use of slurry. This spring, 16 acres of maize has been grown for the first time to help bolster energy in the milking rations.
Aled has diversified income and invested heavily over the years to “gear the farm up” for the next generation with his son, Elliot, aged 15, keen to return home once he has completed a college course and has travelled abroad.
BOX: Farm facts:
• Farming 450 acres across two farms
• Farming 550-900ft above sea level
• Wet farm, mainly Lesser Favoured Area with 60 acres of peatland
• Milking 150 mainly Holstein
• Averaging 10,000 litres at 4.05% fat and 2.9% protein
• Supplies County Milk
• Only family labour employed with Aled’s son Elliot and Lloyd’s children, Carys and Rhodri helping.
• Finishing 120 beef animals annually, mostly Hereford and Belgian Blue crosses.