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Lely robots in action at The South West Dairy Development Centre

Three Lely A5 milking robots have been installed at the South West Dairy Development Centre as part of a system change centred around dairy innovation.
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The 180 cow state-of-the-art dairy unit was set up in 2018 as a key asset in Agri-EPI Centre’s portfolio of leading-edge research facilities.  They are focused on the development, testing and demonstration of new technologies and techniques to support sustainable, efficient and high welfare milk production. Agri-EPI’s Dairy Project Specialist, Duncan Forbes has been involved with the project since its inception. He says: “The unit is set up to run as a commercial dairy, which then provides the platform for research and development. It is built on private land belonging to Steanbow Farms. I think it important to recognise the contribution that our landlords Neil and Mike Christensen are making to future dairy farming by making their land available for this facility. This year, Neil and Mike have taken on the management of the farm alongside their other farming operation.”

As part of the change in management, Agri-EPI and the team decided to make some tweaks to the system. Duncan explains: “As it’s an innovation centre we do expect to make changes to continually enhance the value of the system to further precision milk production. So we decided to move from a guided robotic milking system to a free access system. “The ultimate aim is to look after the cows and optimise welfare. We’re combining a whole host of technology to do that, and robot milking is central to that.” He believes both guided and free access robot systems can work and there are pros and cons with each. “I look forward to seeing the benefits of the free access system, particularly around providing the cows with the freedom to choose within reason when they are milked,” he comments.


Grazing cows on robots continues to be a key focus for the centre, so the robots will be relocated from the centre of the shed to one end with the idea of improving flow onto the grazing platform. Cows will now access pasture through a Lely Grazeway Gate, with grazing managed on an AB or ABC paddock system. To help with paddock access, all of the tracks have been upgraded this year with a mix of stone and oolitic lime or concrete sleepers.

The Grazeway Gate means it’s possible to monitor where individual cows are and filter them towards specific fields to optimise grass utilisation and robot visit. Depending on the time of day, the Grazeway will automatically draft cows towards different blocks of pasture. Cows tend to learn when the gate changes to send them to a new block and head back to the gate. If a cow is eligible to be milked, she’ll be drafted back to the shed or if she’s eligible to graze, back towards the new block. On an AB system, cows are grazed across two, 12 hour blocks, whilst on an ABC system it’s three, eight hour blocks.

Duncan adds: “Lely has a good reputation for operating a free access system. We find the team at Lely Center Yeovil has a very good track record at establishing these systems and importantly, incorporating them with grazing.” On the old system, dry cows were kept in with the milkers and directed towards a separate feeding area. Now, they are managed in their own group next to the calving area. This means the shed has two distinct areas for milking and dry cows. “It makes it simple and takes away some congestion around the milking area,” Neil explains.

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The original herd was dispersed at the start of the year, so the current herd was set-up from scratch using bought-in cows, primarily sourced from robotic milking herds. Cows calve all year round in order to optimise the litres going through each robot.  A key element in the selection of the cows is based on their capacity to produce good yields and constituents to suit the farm’s milk contract, as well as having the ability to produce good levels of milk from forage, particularly from grazing.

R & D

With more-and-more milk contracts focused on grazing and milk constituents, having a demonstration farm with similar objectives will mean there’s plenty for visiting farmers to relate to. Neil believes having a robotic demonstration farm is also increasingly relevant as the industry tackles ever increasing labour challenges. “This centre has meeting facilities to host knowledge exchange events for farmers and industry to learn and ask questions.” he says. “You’re demonstrating systems and an approach so there will be some wins and failures and those failures are lessons for the industry too. . . We’re keen to work with Agri-EPI as service providers on our farm. The centre is well established and we look forward to continuing to champion sustainable and productive technologies for the future of the industry.”

Agri-EPI has a number of research projects in the pipe-line, many of which are focused around ways to reduce the environmental impact of milk production. In addition, the centre will also be trialling a Hoofcount vision detection system. Duncan explains: “It’s all about early detection to allow early intervention - so using cameras and artificial intelligence to identify the very early signs of hoof ailments. It’s a lot like the benefits you get from robots and the immense details you get on individual cows.”

BOX: Farm Facts

  • South West Dairy Development Centre - Agri-EPI Centre
  • Agri-EPI’s research facility farmed and run commercially by Steanbow Farm who owns the land
  • 180 Holsteins calving all year round
  • Milked through three Lely A5 Astronauts
  • Target yields of 9,000 litres a cow a year with 4,000 litres from forage
  • Fed via automated feeding system
  • Two newly installed Lely Discovery 120 Collector slurry vacuums
  • 105 acre grazing platform accessed through a Lely Grazeway Gate
  • Conserved forage (grass and maize silage) grown by Steanbow Farms on additional, neighbouring land.