What would you do with an extra 4.7 hours a day?
Cornish milk producer Terry Middleton has baled his own silage and spent more time with his young family since he hung up the clusters in his 6/12 herringbone and installed a robotic milker.
However, Mr Middleton isn’t just giving up the daily drudge of milking his 50-cow herd.
He is spending the next two years evaluating the social, financial and milk quality benefits to his business at Bawdoe Farm, Lostwithiel.
This was the condition attached to a grant from the Objective 1b scheme towards his Lely A2 Astronaut Automatic Milking System (AMS).
Mr Middleton has commissioned Ian Powell and Ian Ohnstad of The Dairy Group to monitor progress and publish quarterly financial and performance results.
In addition, he is inviting other farmers to visit and find out for themselves.
“When I looked at robots, there was a lack of facts and figures available – I found lots of sales information and farmers prepared to say very little about costs or potential problems,” he explains.
“I liked the idea of robotic milking.
I work this farm myself, with some part-time help, and wanted to increase cow numbers to 60, but this would have meant extra time in the parlour.
A robot would take the slog out of the day for me, help me manage cows and cope with field preparations and paperwork.
With two young children, I wanted to free up time for my family and not be worn out at 65.”
Evaluation began on 1 November last year as the consultants drew up a picture of working life, overhead costs and cell counts (see box).
The AMS was installed on 20 March at a total cost of 94,000 – reduced to 52,000 with the grant.
Installation, however, started a steep learning curve.
Robotic milking is a culture change, says Mr Powell, who estimates it took Mr Middleton 23 hours a day in the first week to train cows.
Within two weeks, 60% were milking happily.
By mid-June, only one cow had had to be dried off.
Mr Middleton has had to learn how to motivate cows to be milked.
Opting to maintain his simple system of grazing in summer plus cake in the parlour, he found there is a fine line between feeding cows properly and offering them an enticement to walk to fresh grazing via the AMS.
“It’s been trial and error how much grass to allocate – allocate too much and they aren’t motivated to go to the robot, so attendance goes down.”
He has set up a system where milking is an accepted consequence of going for a drink, eating concentrates and heading for fresh grass.
It uses a sequence of yard gates to allow one-way cow traffic between two grazing blocks either side of the AMS.
Water troughs are also sited in the collecting yard.
Cows walk from one grazing via the AMS to the next grazing.
Any cow not milked is obviously left behind in the paddock, which attracts attention.
Once every cow has been milked, Mr Middleton moves the electric fence in the old paddock and changes the gates around.
He does this three or four times a day, but ties it in with another task, such as heat detection.
“Setting up and learning the new system has meant I’ve been working a lot of those former milking hours, but I’ve also had more time to think about grazing management.
As a result, I cut 20 acres more silage this year.
“I’ve also really enjoyed being able to go out to the beach or sit down to a proper family meal.
There is a different psychological feeling, as I no longer have to go out and milk.”
Mr Middleton is unsure how things will pan out – part of the project’s purpose is to see where he stands in 12 months’ time.
“Will I have a part-time job pulling pints for instance?
I know that I’m a small dairy farmer, but my wife and I wanted to keep our family in the countryside.
We hope this will keep our business viable and show other small farms the potential.”