Mothballing a parlour installed just a few years ago at a cost of more than 85,000 may seem drastic.

But when the herd milked through it has lost nearly 3p/litre in the year ending July 2005, the decision appears justified.

Having lost such sums, the robot-milked herd at Gelli Aur College in Carmarthenshire has been scrapped.

And while the parlour and bulk tank will be retained, it will only be used for 50 cows when the college’s autumn calving herd is housed.

Farm manager John Owen says the robot has worked well, but cell counts have been pushed up by inefficient milking resulting from udder conformation problems.

As a result, replacement rate has also been increased.

“We have never managed to keep the predicted 60 cows on the system and the level of management required meant labour saving was never achieved,” Mr Owen admits.

“The low milk price has made it impossible to make the high cost robotic herd profitable.”

In the 12 months up to July 2005 labour costs were 3.4p/litre.

Total costs after replacement costs and calf income were 19.4p/litre and the 52-cow herd lost 12,037.

The decision to end year-round robotic milking is part of a package of changes designed to improve the profitability of milk production at the college.

“The dairy industry is in dire straights and we have to develop simpler systems able to generate a profit when milk prices are possibly as low as 15p/litre.”

Obtaining a five year farm business tenancy on a 101ha (250 acre) neighbouring holding will allow the college to scale up both the spring and autumn calving herds from about 100 to 200 cows.

The aim will be to continue improving performance of spring calvers through crossbreeding to boost fertility and milk quality.

In the three years since Jersey crosses started calving the proportion of empty cows in the herd in September has fallen from 30% to 12%, with a 3% empty rate among the crossbreds that now make up 55% of the herd.

Milk quality has also been boosted from 4.06% fat and 3.37% protein to 4.83% fat and 3.6% protein.

“It is clear the herd is on course to deliver a higher milk price and better animal health and fertility.

Crossbred cows are also proving themselves better suited to the extended grazing season, being lighter and stronger on their feet and more aggressive grazers than their Holstein counterparts.”

Scandinavian Red bulls will be used on the Jersey crosses to further boost hybrid vigour.

Up to the end of last year, the 115 spring calvers averaged 4349 litres, of which 4257 litres came from forage.

Only 0.15p/litre was spent on purchased feeds leaving margins over purchased feeds of 15.47p/litre and 732/cow.

The corresponding figures for the 101 autumn calvers were an output of 6771 litres/cow, including 1995 litres from forage, 4.05p/litre spent on purchased feeds and a margin of 14.68p/litre over all bought in feeds.

The margin over purchased feeds was 994/cow.

Now Mr Owen is trying to tighten up calving interval, which has slipped badly and extends from September to December, and cut the incidence of lameness and mastitis.

The aim is to minimise cow stress, so target yield has been reduced from 8500 litres to between 7000 and 7500 litres.

“We are feeding for fertility and health rather than output, which means moving away from using a total mixed ration, feeding less protein and more high energy feeds.”

Grass will be expected to make a big contribution as will forage crops, though the cost of growing these will be closely monitored.

Any concentrate used will be supplied using out of parlour feeders.

Cows from the robot milked herd that calve at the right time and 50 heifers imported from Holland have increased the autumn calving herd to 150 head and the target is 200.

“We believe that scale is paramount for profit.

For a sustainable system we also have to improve cow fertility and longevity.”

Mr Owen claims that the time when milk prices were high encouraged too many producers to develop systems far too complicated and stressful for cows and herd managers.

He says with farm gate returns unlikely to increase the only option is to go for simplicity and efficiency.

bobdavies@agrinews.fsnet.co.uk