The desire to spend less time in the parlour and more time managing the herd led the Wilts-based Glass family to question the future of milking at Stockham Marsh Farm, Foxham.
The tenanted farm’s herd of pedigree Holstein Friesian cows needed increasing to remain profitable, explains Tom Glass, who now manages the farm along with his father Alec and brother David.
“But to do that it required considerable investment in buildings as well as a new parlour.
However, our landlords weren’t interested in investment.”
Having previously battled with bovine TB standstills for seven years, the decision was made to buy the farm, but keep the herd housed all year in a well ventilated building to help the problem.
“That would still have meant a considerable investment in parlour design and the other added costs and adaptations, such as a collecting yard,” he added.
So the family decided to go down the route of robotic milking.
“Our initial thought like most farmers was no way, but indepth research and a trip to Tim Gibson’s robotic milkers in Yorkshire convinced us.”
This was the family’s best way of carrying on milking, reducing labour and improving quality of life, something Mr Glass and his young family were keen to maximise.
Two factory-refurbished Lely Astronaut robots were purchased two years ago for 80,000.
“The figure seemed high, but when you compared it to the cost of a new parlour and the extra buildings we soon justified it.”
The robots were fitted and 115 milking cows soon started to adjust, with only three older, big-bagged cows refusing.
The two robots are designed to cope with 75 cows each, so the herd is currently at its maximum with 150 cows.
“Yields have increased by 1200 litres to an average of 8600 litres, but with all the heifer replacements from the TB problem we have a relatively young herd which has the capacity to achieve 10,000 litres within a short time and with little effort,” says Mr Glass.
One of the biggest improvements seen since milking on robots is teat condition and longevity.
“We have one heifer who has just given 14,000 litres, but with a relatively small bag.
Because they are milking four or five times a day, the udder doesn’t become stretched and is less prone to mastitis,” he adds.
Mr Glass says the robots allow only 12-15 litres of milk from each milking. “Cows are offered an 18% concentrate at the same time and will be refused more feed when they have just milked or when they are recorded as a low milker.”
But getting the diet correct hasn’t been easy, he admits.
A visit to Holland with Lely for management and maintenance training has helped Mr Glass find the solution.
“They are fed a total mixed ration consisting of grass silage, maize silage, rolled wheat, soya and sugar beat.
But we suffered with wet silage in the first year, so cows weren’t going forward to milk often enough.”
Chopped straw is now included in the diet to encourage cows to cud regularly and improve digestion, he adds.
And because he has done some training, maintenance is pretty simple.
“I know what to look for and don’t rely on the technician too much.
“But Lely do provide a good service where a technician is on hand 24 hours a day and we can go through some repairs over the phone, failing that they come out.
“The robots are fitted with an alarm which I carry, so when one fails to attach four cows in a row I know about it straight away.”
Robots are designed to shut down three times a day for a full boiling hot water clean and clusters are cleaned between each milking.
“As cows come in to be milked teats are cleaned, clusters are attached and then teats are individually sprayed after milking with an approved teat conditioner.”
Cows wear collars, so any cows with a poor quarter can be detected and abnormal milk is automatically dumped.
It is this factor that particularly impresses Mr Glass’ vet Graham Hibbert.
“I have concerns about milking high yielding dairy cows twice a day, but with robots, pressure and stress on the cow is minimised and each quarter is treated individually and therefore milked efficiently.”
The machine gives a reading for all cows, how many refusals there have been and provides a measure of conductivity to assess mastitis.
Mastitis levels are a quarter of what they were in the old parlour with twice day milking, adds Mr Glass.
“Saving time on milking means I can come in to the office after the routine jobs on the farm and assess the computer records.”
The removal of manual milking from daily management of the herd has provided greater flexibility on the farm, allowing a small gap at the weekend for a little golf, which he never had time for before.
With fewer staff required, his bother David now relief milks on other farms.