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Devon Farm Strives for 1 million Kilos Per Robot

Achieving one million kilos of milk per cow robot per year is a key driver for the Reed family who view technology as a way to maximise business performance, whilst delivering work life balance.

“Our aims are to maximise yield from the cows and per robot,” Thomas Reed explains. We wont milk any more (cows), so its getting the most from the system weve got and improving animal welfare and staff welfare.”

The Reeds farm at Gatcombe Farm, Seaton in Devon. The 350 cow herd averages 11,770 litres a cow a year, with two of their five Lely A4 robots achieving the golden figure of one million kilos annually in 2019, 2020 and 2021. One robot achieved 3,200 kilos of milk a day in 2020. Ongoing Bovine TB challenges have hampered consistent, year-on-year performance, with yields struggling to catch up after losing 70 cows to TB, three years ago.

The herd is split into three cow and two heifer groups, with each group milked through its own robot. It’s the cow groups where Thomas Reed and dad, Robert are targeting the one million kilogram figure.

Robert believes such yields are only achievable on a robotic milking system. “We don’t believe you could achieve what we’re doing with the robots on a conventional system, with the staffing issues as they are.”

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System changes

Traditionally, the herd had been milked through a 20:20 herringbone. In the early days, the ability to easily source Polish labour had meant three times a day milking was easy to accomplish. However, as foreign labour became harder to find, milking frequency began to fluctuate from three times to twice a day milking.

This coincided with the need to upgrade the parlour. Thomas also wasn’t keen to “stand in a parlour” in the long-term. Lely robots offered the perfect solution, particularly considering their popularity among friends and relatives who had installed them. “The (Lely) robots had outperformed everyone’s expectations. No one said it was a bad idea,” recalls Robert.

Consequently the decision was made, and by 2016, all five robots were up and running. The Reeds worked closely with Alistair Cumings, Project Coordinator for Lely Center Yeovil to establish how the robots could be incorporated into the existing three sheds. This meant extending buildings and reducing the herd by 50 to fit with the five robot system.

Achieving top yields

The team uses data captured by the robots to fine-tune the system and ensure the herd is performing at its optimum. That means critiquing factors such as preparation time in the robot, and culling slow milking cows. “We look at every second in every day. Every second you can gain across 1,000 millings in a day adds up to kilos of milk per robot,” Thomas explains.

In an ideal world, the family would cull more selectively, but this is hampered by TB. Good husbandry, quality forage and breeding are fundamental to achieving top yields.

Grass is cut on a multi-cut system, every four weeks to maximise quality. Robert says this is vital for rumen health and achieving high yields. Having their own forage wagon allows grass to be cut at the optimum.

All heifer calves are genomically tested and the best put to dairy sexed semen. The team works with Semex to adopt a breeding programme that complements the high yielding robot system.  “It’s focused us more on udder and milking speed. And you want cows to milk. They need to voluntarily come to the robot,” Thomas explains, adding that lameness management is a key component to that.

Working smarter

The robots have also built flexibility into the working day, which is particularly useful during the main forage making season. More recently, the installation of five Lely slurry Collectors has instigated an even greater improvement in work life balance as sheds no longer need to be manually scraped. This has coincided with a move away from deep bed sand cubicles to water beds as a result of slurry handling challenges and rising sand costs.

As a result, the team only needs to spend three man hours a day applying sawdust to the beds, compared to 10 man hours a day slurry scraping and raking sand. Thomas says it’s saved fuel, machinery wear and tear and simplified the system.

“Now we can walk away from the milking cows at 8am in the morning and we start the evening jobs at 3pm and finish at 5.30pm. It has really simplified our day. With the system now, we could do the whole day with one person if push came to shove.”

Farm Facts

  • Partnership between Robert and Julie Reed and sons, Thomas and Nicholas.
  • 405ha (1,000 acres) including maize, corn for crimping and grass.
  • 350 pedigree Holsteins.
  • Milked through five Lely A4 milking robots.
  • Yielding 11,770 litres a cow a year at 4.04% fat and 3.44% protein.
  • 2,650 litres milk from forage per cow per year.
  • 3.2 average milking visits per day.
  • Housed all year round.
  • Supplying Crediton Dairies.
  • 60,000-80,000 cells/ml average bulk somatic cell count.
  • 14 cases of mastitis per 100 cows.
  • Bactoscan of 11.
  • Rear own replacements and sell beef (predominantly Aberdeen Angus) as stores.