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Robots Future Proof Dorset Family Business

Milking robots have created a more resilient and profitable business that meets the needs of every member of the multi-generational farming family at Batsons Farm, Dorset.

Their retrofit in 2022 resulted in a 13% uplift in yield thanks to an increase in milking frequency from twice a day to an average 3.3 times a day. It also meant the herd could expand by 20 cows as there was no longer an impact on milking time. An end to milking eight hours a day has also benefited Robert Symms both physically and emotionally, and created a more attractive system for son Jake, 27.

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“The robots have paid for themselves all the way through,” says Bryony Symms. “There hasn’t been a month when we haven’t been better off,” Jake adds. “It makes the farm more viable. Its cash. It comes down to cash.”

Cows now average 37.9 litres a cow a day, up from 33.5 litres. Ultimately, improved farm income has lead to a more resilient business, and one that’s more resistant to milk price fluctuations. This has also reduced stress for everyone.

For Robert, the decision to step away from the parlour was a difficult one, but made at the right time. Ten years prior, the family had decided to invest for the future and erect a new dairy on a greenfield site to replace dated and overcrowded buildings. The new 220 cow cubicle shed was designed with cow welfare in mind with wide passages, curtain controlled ventilation, rubber matting at the feed fence and locking yokes. Simply moving into the new building had resulted in a yield uplift from 27 to 33 litres a cow a day.

At the time, robots were dismissed as Robert still enjoyed milking, and a 16:32 swingover parlour was installed. However, fast forward a decade and his attitude began to change.

“My joints were starting to let me know I was standing for too long,” Robert recalls. “I didn’t like the idea of anyone else milking the cows so I thought the robots could work well.”

The robots also appealed to Jake, who was keen to create work life balance. “If you’re milking eight hours a day it’s hard to enjoy life outside of the farm. And if I decide to have a family, it brings flexibility,” he says.

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 Retrofit

Conversations with the local farming community pointed them towards Lely, thanks to the excellent service and high performance targets encouraged by the Lely Center Yeovil team. Jake adds: “We were told, if you have something go wrong, they’ll be there, and that’s true. If we have a major breakdown, they’re there within an hour. Now, I wouldn’t go anywhere else.”

Project Coordinator, Alistair Cumings from Lely Center Yeovil worked with the Symms’s building designer, Tim McKendrick from The Dairy Group, to integrate the robots into the existing shed. To avoid compromising on space, a lean-to was erected at one end to house the four robots, with two robots per group, arranged in an ‘L’ shape.

Time with cows

The Symms were initially concerned that stepping away from twice a day milking would mean less time with the cows. However, the reverse has proved to be true.

“With the robots, you still spend a vast amount of time with the cows,” Bryony says. In fact, Jake believes he now knows the herd better as there’s more time to focus on individual cows. This allows any issues to be picked up and addressed promptly, which ultimately benefits animal health and welfare.

For example, if a cow doesn’t look right, the team will visually assess her and look at the robot dashboard on their mobile phone to see if any issues have been flagged up through the robot. This could be reduced rumination times, high milk conductivity (which is a sign of mastitis) or high somatic cell counts, for example. The robot also automatically produces a daily Health Report with cows listed for attention.

Health

Jake says milk conductivity often goes up first, followed by somatic cell count. If this occurs, a non steroidal anti-inflammatory will be administered and cows then tend to self cure. “You can track the somatic cell count recovery. If it comes down after 24 hours, it tends to mean she’s getting better. If not, she needs treatment with antibiotics,” he explains.

By treating cows quicker, thanks to more time and information through the robot, the Symms believe cows are recovering better. This has helped them achieve mastitis rates of just six per hundred cows.

Robert adds: People joke youre retired now,but its not retirement, you just spend your time differently.”

All-in-all, the family believe their day-to-day lives are better, as too is the outlook for the business. Robert says: “I’m not quite so grumpy. My life is a lot easier; the day is a lot shorter - about an hour either end.”

Jake adds: “It’s a better place to work. I think it’s going to be much easier to get staff in the future, purely down to how the farm is run. And I think we’ll be able to employ more staff when mum and dad eventually retire.”

Farm Facts

  • Robert and Bryony Symms and son, Jake.
  • 170ha (420 acres) farmed.
  • 240 cow pedigree Holsteins, housed all year round.
  • Milked through four Lely A5 Astronauts
  • 12,100 litres per cow per year at 3.95% fat and 3.43% protein.
  • 3.3 average robot visits per cow per day.
  • 2,883 litres per cow per year milk from forage.
  • Supplying Muller Co op.
  • A Lely Juno feed pusher, in action since 2012.
  • Six cases of mastitis per 100 cows.
  • 160,000 cells/ml somatic cell counts and a bactoscan of 21.
  • <5% lameness.
  • Antibiotic use of 14.5mg/PCU.
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