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Yields have gone up by 4000 litres a cow, and Welsh producer Tomos Adams can hardly believe how much his returns, and efficiency, have improved since he installed a second-hand Lely A3 robot in March 2020.
“If we’d gone to three times a day milking instead of investing in a robot it would have cost us more,” he says. “Both my father and I were sceptical at the start, now we wish we’d made the change years ago.”
Tomos farms a 300-acre mostly grass farm, some tenanted and some rented, at Llanfrynach, Cowbridge, with his father, in the Vale of Glamorgan. As well as the quality grass the area is known for, he grows 20 acres of maize and 8 acres of lucerne. All are added to the TMR ration fed daily, along with a 25% dairy blend. The cows are also fed, according to yield, in the robot.
He aims to have 55 pedigree Friesian and pedigree Holsteins in milk at any one time, with all-year-round calving ensuring he has the level profile favoured by his milk broker, County Milk.
As well as the 60-strong herd, some 40 in-calf heifers, and around 60 beef calves and stores, he runs a flock of 80 pedigree Texels and 200 Suffolk cross commercial ewes.
“Our dairy cows are a lot less stressed, there’s less bullying, cow health and welfare has improved, yields have increased… what is there not to like?”
Increasing numbers“We’re gradually increasing cow numbers and hope to get up to 70 or so in the next year. The aim then will be to have 15 dry all the time so there are 60 going through the robot daily. You can’t stay still in this job, and our overall aim is to improve the quality of the cows and the efficiency of our production.”
He says his cows adapted to the robot very well “even better than I hoped” and after 10 days every one was milking well. One cow didn’t make the cut, but that was because her teats crossed over so the robot couldn’t milk her – now she’s a suckler cow and enjoying life at grass.
“I was studying at Nottingham University when I first saw Lely robots,” he says. “I did lots and lots of research and talked to other producers, and the same message kept coming back. Buy Lely.
Prior to installing the A3 Tomos milked through a 7:14 herringbone. While the machinery was about 10 years old, some of the installation was a lot older, 30 to 40 years. They had a beef building that they retrofitted with the A3, and while they saved perhaps 20% of the cost by utilising an existing building, Tomas believes the move would still have been incredibly cost-efficient if they’d had to start from scratch.
“In addition, the robot was on their Master contract plan for servicing and maintenance, and they were happy to continue to support it. This gave us a lot of confidence.”
Cows are housed all year-round
The cows are housed all year, with just the in-calf heifers out grazing, alongside the beef animals which usually graze across two summers before being sold.
There’s always plenty of silage available, with two cuts taken off the main block and four cuts off the second block of 40 acres some five miles away.
While some of the land has been rented for over 45 years on a farm business tenancy, the remainder is on a three-generation tenancy which ends with him. “It’s difficult when it comes to investment in the land or buildings, but we always talk to our landlord, tell him what we plan to do, and hope he agrees and stays with us. Rented land is very difficult to get in this area.”
What has kept Tomos in farming? “It’s the stock really, I just love cows,” he says. “But, at the same time, I didn’t want to be tied to a milking parlour for most of the day for the rest of my life. Getting reliable labour is almost impossible.”
The farm’s average yield is 37kgs/head, resulting in an annual yield of 11,500 litres. He says he was expecting to see an increase, but not one this large, but perhaps around 2000 litres per cow! Both butterfat at 4.2% and protein at 3.4% have stayed similar.
“We’ve seen changes in the cows’ behaviour as well,” he explains. “They were always quiet, now they are so docile and happy it’s lovely to see. In the past we’ve had quite a lot of foot problems, they used to have to stand around in the collecting yard for so long. Now we’ve seen big improvements in foot health and also a reduction in the number of mastitis cases.”
Talking about the T4C management system – soon to be switched to the newer Horizon – Tomos says he’s very happy with the amount of information he receives. “Everything is right up to date, so we know exactly what’s going into, and what’s coming out of, every cow.”
More flexibility within the same time
Installing the robot has definitely given him more flexibility. “I probably spend just as much time with the cows as I did when I was milking twice a day, but I can pick and choose my time. If I’m doing some contracting for another farmer, for example, I don’t have to keep looking at my watch to be back by 4pm.
“My father and I were spending six or seven hours a day each in the parlour – now I would think I spend five, maybe six, hours with the cows. That alone is saving one labour unit.
“Udder and foot health has improved massively, and we’ve massively reduced our cell counts and we’re right on top of any cases of mastitis.
“These days you get out what you put in, and you can’t afford to stand still in any business.
“This was absolutely the right decision for us, and I would urge anyone thinking of changing their parlour to look at installing robots. They may not suit every situation, but if you go into it with an open mind and want it to work, it will.
“Our dairy cows are a lot less stressed, there’s less bullying, cow health and welfare has improved, yields have increased… what is there not to like?
“There’s no more clock watching, my hours can be a lot more flexible, and we’re all a lot happier. As I said earlier, I wish we’d installed a robot years ago.”