Robots help high yielders hit new highs
A move to robots from three times a day milking means the herd run by RABDF Gold Cup finalist, Joe Ives, is on track to realise a 4.6 litre a cow a day increase, coupled with improved udder health and lower antibiotic use.
Such improvements have been achieved, despite the herd already hitting some pretty impressive performance targets on a conventional milking system. In fact, in 2019 the herd was awarded the Chris May Memorial Cup for the UK herd with the highest average lifetime daily yield of 19.6kg. Joe puts the further uplift in yields down to improvements in building design and cow comfort, in combination with greater milking frequency; cows are now averaging 3.3 robot visits a day. Cow numbers have also been reduced to lower stocking densities. It means cows are producing a milk yield average of over 40 litres per cow per day. Milk solids have also increased to 3.25kg per cow per day, thanks in part to ration changes which have been made to help meet the requirements of the farm’s new milk contract with Arla. This has included boosting dietary protein quality by feeding more rape seed meal and feeding fat. “The robots have helped the cows meet their genetic potential,” Joe says. “If we’d just tweaked the ration or the buildings, I’m sure they wouldn’t have produced 40 litres a cow a day or those solids per day.”
The old set-up was in need of investment and very labour intensive, hence the decision to update the buildings and move to robotic milking. Having made the “simple decision” to go with Lely Center Yeovil due to “reliability and service back up,” Joe and the team started working with Project Coordinator Alistair Cumings to discuss how the existing buildings could be adapted and improved (see back page). Joe also took the opportunity to reduce cow numbers from 300 to 240 as part of the overall drive to create a stress free cow environment. In December 2019, cows started milking through the four Lely A5 Astronauts. Cows are run in small groups of about 55 per robot to minimise stress and maximise lying and eating time.
Joe believes more time to rest and eat, combined with the luxury of deciding when they want to be milked, has lead to a more ‘relaxed’ herd. It’s also proved less labour intensive. The team is now three people less and everyone has much more manageable working hours of around 40-50 hours a week, compared to 60-70 hours previously. Joe says this should help attract more, highly skilled staff. “It’s a lot more attractive to the older, more experienced person who doesn’t want to be standing in a pit putting on cups 10 hours a day,” he says. Herd Manager, Sally Bowden says the set-up allows the team to spend more time around the cows. “There is as much work, but it’s different and I feel I’m achieving more with the work, rather than standing in the parlour,” she says.
Sally and Herdsman Ric Mariano, have been blown away by the data available through the robots, which has enabled them to make more informed decisions on an individual cow basis. Sally explains: “My first port of call in the morning is The Health List. That brings up any milk conductivity issues or rumination issues."
Sally tracks rumination rates to get an idea of whether a cow is recovering well post-calving. A drop in rumination and activity suggests a cow is sick and flags her up for closer assessment. Milk conductivity has proved helpful in picking up the early signs of mastitis.
A cow with an increase in conductivity will be assessed and stripped. If necessary, the team will give her non steroidal anti-inflammatories (NSAIDs) and udder mint. Nine times out of ten this will stop the problem from escalating and avoid the use of antibiotics. Addressing issues early - coupled with improvements in the cow’s environment - has helped reduce clinical mastitis rates. Antibiotic use across the farm has also dropped from 12.05mg/psu before the robots were installed to 7.62mg/psu in 2020.
Joe says all of the improvements have helped take overall herd performance to the next level. “Because of what we’ve done to the buildings and set-up with the robots, that’sgiven us the confidence to go for The Gold Cup. The cows’ performance was very good, but now their performance is excellent. We know we can get better and the robots will help with that,” he says.