20 November 1998

Robot milkers allow Dutch farmer more precious time

TINY Stokman and her children make a happy scene as they cycle home to the farm at Koudum from the local school, colourful scarves blowing in the wind that is a constant feature of the flat Friesland countryside.

Tiny effortlessly pedals her sturdy bike with its young passengers, son Arjan, aged four, on the back and two-year-old daughter Elsemieke up front. Alongside, six-year-old Nico pedals his own steed. When the children get home they run to find their father Anton. Although it is nearing 4pm he will not be busy milking as had been the case until May this year – he has a pair of Lely Astronaut robotic milkers to do it for him.

These latest additions to the farm have attracted a lot of attention from farmers far and wide. They make light work of the 100-strong herd which opts to visit them four times a day – and could manage another 20 cows should Anton wish to increase the herd. The robots have freed him from this seven-hours-a-day chore and left him with time to use in other ways. This is something this progressive 41-year-old, who has farmed in his own right for 20 years, could not have anticipated when he started farming.

Antons father bought the farm 30 years ago, moving to it from Amsterdam, the city that had swallowed Antons grandparents farm seven years earlier. "They succeeded in buying this farm which had 25 cows and low productivity. The fields were scattered, our neighbour had to come through our garden every day to get to his fields and we had to go through his to get to our fields," recalls Anton, adding that his father gradually improved the farm and brought the dairy herd up to 50.

Anton was 18 when he decided he wanted to farm. "I knew the first years wouldnt be so nice when friends were partying and had their own apartments but I knew that by 35 I would have my own business," he says. It was to be much sooner, however.

"I went to agricultural college for two years and then farmed with my father from 1979-85, when he died," explains Anton. By then they had managed to get land in one block. "We have 38ha of good grass pasture and behind that 14ha of nature fields for the birds. We can cut one a year for hay on June 20 and then the young stock run there for a couple of months. Because we are very intensive this works well."

Land sells for 60,000guilders/

ha (£19,736/ha approx) without quota and quota is available for those that can afford it at 4.5guilders/litre (£1.48/litre approx). "There are a lot of young Dutch farmers all waiting to farm, it is very competitive. The Dutch want to go dairy farming but you can only become a farmer if your father farms and will let you have his for a friendly price. Then you have the same obligation," says Anton, who does not regret his choice of career.

"I like to be my own boss and develop things every three or four years. I have always had other interests," he says His aim is to reach a point where the farm can be easily run by one person during weekends and holidays and he would like to spend about half his time on the farm. "This was a goal we had reached before but lost when we increased production from 600,000Kg to 800,000Kg

/year. With the robots we are trying to reach it again, milking 1200,000Kg/year," he says.

&#42 Still adapting

The cows are still adapting to the robotic milkers but so far he is pleased. "Yield is up 15%, high in protein – 3.6% – and I dont think our target yield is the limit, there are always new ways of giving cows comforts. The cell count is going down. It will if you milk more often and the cows use the robots about four times a day. The system is better so we must use it to keep the cell count low and must earn back the investment," says Anton.

It is not difficult to get loans for this type of investment, banks lend on land first, then the person, and interest rates are about 5%. He hopes the investment will pay for itself in eight to 10 years. "It should be possible, if you rate your own time. The system is popular with the cows who are more at ease, quieter."

One of the reasons Anton wanted the robotic milkers was to give him more time to spend with his family, a reason he thinks will make them a success with younger farmers. He belongs to a study club spawned by interest in the machines. "Eight robots were bought at one time through the club for members so we got lots of agreements round them. We are gathering information on them and after a couple of years we will hire in some specialists to analyse the results and spread the information out again. The government has put some money into this and will also try to get some useful information out," he says.

He is keen on technical aids to farming and has patented a computerised system of feeding potatoes and wet products to cows according to the condition score of each animal, which he has since sold on. His cows are housed most of the time but this year they will spend four or five hours a day outside. "People think that the cows should be outside but for efficient use of the ration and the nitrogen – which is better when spread on the land – they should be inside," he says. Indoors they are provided with water beds. "They are very comfortable and I think they will last 20 years. They help prevent leg problems and the cows lie down more which increases the blood running through the udder by 25%. The more they lie down the more milk they produce so they should be profitable in the long run."

Anton and Tiny have been married for seven years. "My parents had five sons and three daughters and the boys were busy helping father and the girls helping mother. Although I was born on a farm I never saw a cow giving birth to a calf. They laughed a lot when I married a farmer," says the delightful Tiny, who admits she is sometimes afraid of cows. She worked as a district nurse until Arjan was a year old, and she misses talking to the patients. "It is the only thing I miss and I wont work outside the farm again," she says, adding that it is usual for wives in the area to stay at home. "I look after the calves and clean up the farm, garden, house and I am painting everything. I like to work and live in one place."

&#42 School arrangements

The children attend the local school, where two and a half to four year olds spend two hours twice a week at playschool, From four years old the hours are 8.30-11.30am and 1-3.30pm with Wednesday and Friday afternoons off. "It is possible to have school lunches for 2guilders but most go home for lunch unless their parents are out working. Our main meal is lunchtime," explains Tiny.

At school the children speak Dutch but at home the family speaks Friesian, the other official language of the Netherlands. The children had an extra opportunity to practise Dutch this summer when two town-based girls from a school in Amersfoort came to stay "I liked to welcome them and to work with them," says Tiny. The girls found the farm stay a real eye opener.

"They thought we would have wooden shoes and never go off the farm and at first they were afraid of the cows. They were vegetarians because their parents taught them that to eat meat was cruel."

However, by the end of the stay the

girls were

questioning vegetarianism, they had seen that the cows were well fed and cared for. They also liked family life on the farm, the way the Stokmans were always home with the children. "The girls had their own door keys because their parents work," explains Tiny. "We will have children from the school again and possibly from Romania.

The Stokmans meet a wide circle of people. The farm has become something of a model for robotic milking and study groups visit twice a week, and when Farmlife called two Spanish farmers were about to visit. Anton belongs to many farming organisations including a European dairy farming group that makes foreign visits and compares farm facts between countries.

Tiny helps raise funds for a rural project in Tanzania, belongs to a womens calf-rearing group, is involved in the local community through school and church and sings gospel in a choir. They enjoy the interchange of ideas and knowledge they get through meeting so many people.

Anton is very aware of the political and environmental changes that will continue to affect the way farmers must operate and likes to keep abreast of them. "It is not the school you have been to but the permanent education you undertake," he says. "You have to keep on running and go faster every year."

Hopefully his robotic milkers will allow him time to do this.

There is more to life than milking for

Friesland farmer Anton Stokman and

his family. Tessa Gates met

them – and their robots – at

their dairy farm at Koudum

Pedal power rules for the school run which Tiny makes four times a day with Arjan and Elsemieke on her bike, while Nico rides his own steed.

Anton and Tiny Stokmans dairy herd is housed for most of the year and has the comfort of water beds to

help prevent leg problems.

There is more to life than milking for

Friesland farmer Anton Stokman and

his family. Tessa Gates met

them – and their robots – at

their dairy farm at Koudum

Anton decided to buy two Lely Astronaut robotic milkers to give him room to

increase his herd size while freeing him from hours of milking. The cows choose

when to be milked and most visit the machines four times a day.